PodCastle 448: Shaina Rubin Keeps Her Head Under Circumstances Nobody Could Have Expected

Show Notes

Rated PG

This story is the sequel to “Further Arguments in Support of Yudah Cohen’s Proposal to Bluma Zilberman,” which originally ran at Diabolical Plots and also ran on PodCastle.

Shaina Rubin Keeps Her Head Under Circumstances Nobody Could Have Expected

by Rebecca Fraimow

People in our neighborhood are always saying what a pity it is that two such fine-looking people as my cousin Bluma and her husband have no children yet. I don’t see that they’re so fine-looking as all that. Still, I’ve often thought that if Bluma had a little bit more business of her own to worry about, she might have less time to waste getting into mine.

It wasn’t even my idea to sneak out to the Yiddish theater, that unlucky night I’m telling you about. It was my friend Gittel who really wanted to go. She’s always saying she’s going to do something wild like run away with an actor, so in fact it was a mitzvah for me to say I would go with her and make sure she didn’t do anything foolish—but you just try explaining good sense like that to anyone in my house, especially my cousin Bluma.

Most of the time my father’s too busy disapproving of my brothers to mind what I do and don’t do, but Bluma’s another story. She’s only three years older than me, but she’s more full of advice than a kugel’s full of noodles. Personally, I think people ought to mind their own affairs. Do I ask where Bluma’s mother disappears to at nights, when most women of her age are snoring in their beds? I certainly don’t, and I don’t want to know the answer, either. When Bluma spent a whole summer going back and forth about who she should marry, and if she should marry, and when and why and where—well, did I say a thing about it? The whole neighborhood had an opinion on that, but you didn’t catch me gossiping one way or the other.

All right, perhaps I expressed one or two opinions to personal friends. But a person is allowed to have personal friends, and certainly a person is allowed to have opinions on a subject like whether or not her cousin is going to marry a rich man and finally move out of the house!

But my cousin Bluma, who thinks she’s so much more sensible than anybody, never does take the really sensible course. One day she turns down two proposals flat, and the next day she swears she’ll never marry anyone. Finally, after taking some time to think it over, she decides that she still won’t have the rich one, but the penniless man is just the one for her.

Now we’ve got the both of them in our house, Bluma and her husband, and they’re always either quarreling or making up to each other. For the person who has to live in the next room, the one is just about as bad as the other. I share a room with Bluma’s mother, and you should see the way her face goes red as she’s pretending she can’t hear. Then you’ve got my father and brothers—they all quarrel with each other even more than Bluma and Yudah. And even that’s discounting Bluma’s mother, my Tante Leah, who’s still so grateful to my father for taking her and Bluma into our household that she’s spent seven straight years apologizing for everything she does. Given all those people underfoot all of the time, can you really blame me for wanting to get out of the house every once in a while?

Honestly, to hear the way that certain people go on and on about a harmless little thing like taking an evening stroll, you’d think it were still the nineteenth century! Nobody ever mentions it when Tante Leah can’t be found, but for me it’s another story entirely, which I think is really unfair, for I’m sure she’s much more likely to be doing something scandalous than I am. Anybody who spends that much time apologizing has got to have a secret worth being embarrassed about. Nonetheless, she can go wherever she likes, and I can’t even set a foot outside after sundown without Bluma wanting to know what I’m doing and why it’s got to be done after dark.

However, as it happened, on this particular night I’m telling you about, Bluma and that husband of hers had just made up from another quarrel. They went straight to their room after supper, and with my aunt out nobody-knows-where, there wasn’t the least bit of trouble for me in wrapping my best shawl around my head and sweeping straight out the front door.

Gittel’s house is just a half-mile away from ours, and I know the route like the back of my own hand. Still, in the dark, even the back of your own hand can start to look a little bit peculiar. I certainly wouldn’t say that I was lost. As soon as I stopped to look about me, I knew exactly where I was and what I’d done wrong. I’d not gone so very far out of my way, and I should have been in plenty of time to meet with Gittel, only just then I saw a group of five or six boys pelting down the street towards me.

Now, I’d be really embarrassed for anyone to think I couldn’t handle such a thing as a group of boys, in the ordinary way. It’s true that these particular boys were strangers to me, and I didn’t see a yarmulke or a set of peyes among them. Still, when you live in a great city like Vilna, there’s plenty of strangers all around; once you start to be frightened of them you might as well lock yourself up in the house and set yourself to hemming handkerchiefs forevermore. Anyway, boys of all sorts are just like dogs or cats—if you’re nervous of them it only encourages them to swell their chest up and start bullying you.

But enough about boys! I generally try to talk about boys as little as I can, for they’re really not very interesting, and anyway the more you talk about them the more conceited they get. It’s just the fact that these particular boys were running that made me cautious. My brothers and their friends, they don’t do anything unless it’s for conceit or laziness. You’ve practically got to hit them with a broom just to get them to move two steps out of your way. So whatever was making these boys come flailing down the street like the entire Russian army was after them, I knew I didn’t want any part of it.

And so instead of standing around to see what was behind them, I did the sensible thing: I got myself out of the way. Everyone knew Yitl Szmirgeld’s empty house, right on the corner near where I’d found myself. The door was barred, but months ago someone had broken in the window round the side with a rock. I reached through the hole in the window to unlatch it, and in a trice I was inside.

The place was all over cobwebs, and I had to muffle my sneezes in my sleeve as I ran to the front window, kicking up great gray gusts of dust as I went. Still, not a one of the boys running past the house paused or looked my way, so I was certain they hadn’t noticed me. They just kept on running, and something came running after them. In the dark of the street, I couldn’t see it well enough to make out what was what—some kind of dog, I thought—but whatever it was howled fit to wake the dead. It ran right past my window just as the boys had done, and then it was gone.

I waited a good few minutes after that, watching out the window, before I even thought about going back out to the street.

And really, up to that point, I don’t think anyone could fault me for anything I did. I took the most sensible of precautions, and wasn’t foolhardy in the least. What happened next was only due to the worst kind of luck, and there certainly wasn’t any way to expect it.

When at last I thought the coast was clear, I swung myself back around from the front window, intending to go out the way I had come in. But when I turned, I saw somebody was standing in between me and the way out—a woman, I thought, from the way they were all bundled in scarves and wrappings.

I might have been embarrassed, if I’d thought there was any good reason for anybody else to be here. As it was, we were both intruders, and there was no reason I shouldn’t be bold. “Pardon me,” I said, politely as I could, and made to step around her.

“You shouldn’t have come into my house,” answered the other. I’m not ashamed to tell you my heart jumped a few times in my chest, for the voice was the strangest thing I’d ever heard—like our cantor when he hits the high notes, if there were a whole choir of cantors singing all together. It made all my hair stand on end.

Still, queer voice or no queer voice, I know what’s true and what’s false. “Excuse me,” said I, “but you’re mistaken. This was Yitl Szmirgeld’s house, and it won’t belong to anyone else until the lawyers sort out the inheritance.”

If I thought the person’s voice was strange when they spoke, their laughter was even stranger. “And who should own Yitl Szmirgeld’s house now, beside his only son? And who should live here besides his son’s mother?”

Now, this was plain nonsense. Everyone knew Yitl Szmirgeld had no children. That was the whole cause of the confusion over the house. His wife left to visit her parents in Lodz five years ago and sent word she wasn’t coming back—and nobody blamed her either, after the time she’d had with Yitl and those friends of his, and their crazy plots to overthrow the czar.

Still, now that I looked a bit closer, I saw that the person was carrying something inside all those scarves, held close to the chest; and perhaps, after all, it might be a child.

“Well,” said I, “if you say it’s so, then perhaps it’s so.” If Yitl Szmirgeld had ever strayed, that was a surprise to me—as much for the fact that anyone would have wanted to take up with Yitl Szmirgeld without a ring to gain from it as for the scandal, for he never was a catch as far as I could tell. Moreover, if the woman really had been living here with her child, it was shameful the way the cobwebs and the dust had been allowed to build up. Still, it certainly was none of my business, and I said so. “Personally,” I said, “I’ve always thought people’s business should be left to themselves, so I’ll leave you and be on my way—” And I turned promptly back around towards the other window.

But when I turned, I got the shock of my life—for there the woman was, right in between me and the window, not three inches from my nose.

Though perhaps woman is the wrong word after all, for when I looked inside the hollow of the wrappings that swathed her, there wasn’t anything to be seen at all!

“Not so fast, Shaina Rubin,” said she, in that voice like a dozen people all singing away, and leaned in a little closer. “Now I’ve got you here, I’m not at all certain I’m inclined to have you leave again.”

She was a demon, of course—though I hardly could believe it then, and still can hardly believe it now. And really, even if I were the most dutiful stay-at-home old-fashioned girl in the world, I don’t see how I could have been asked to expect a thing like that!

I took a step backwards, and then another. I didn’t particularly want to be in kissing-range of anyone, but least of all a demon. “You’ve no call to keep me here,” I protested. “I can’t think what good I would do to you in the least. I’m a terrible nuisance to feed.” I was racking my brains, trying to think what a demon might want with me. The trouble was that I’d always thought such stories were nonsense, and never paid a bit of attention. Well, you tell me you didn’t think they were nonsense, in this day and age!

The demon didn’t say anything for a moment; it was if she were surprised I was backing away, and had to think what to do next. I don’t know what else she’d expected. After a moment, however, she began to laugh at me, which I didn’t like in the least. “And don’t you pride yourself on being so clever! Well, if you’re no good for anything else, perhaps I want you to keep house for me. Weren’t you yourself thinking what a disgrace this place is? I’m a person of distinction among demons, you know, and I certainly can’t lower myself to sweep out dust and cobwebs, but I don’t believe it’s wholesome for my son to live in such an environment. He keeps sneezing.”

“I’m no good at sweeping,” said I, backing away another few steps. The room wasn’t so very big, and the window I’d come in by was not so far away. “Bluma’s done all the sweeping in our house for years. She can’t abide a mess. She only gets irritated if I do it, for I don’t do it well at all.”

It seemed the demon had decided to be amused by me, for she only laughed again. “We’ll see how you do, I suppose. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll possess you and go to find someone else to bring back here who can be of more use to me. But I’d rather not leave my son alone just yet. He’s at a tender age.”

“I’m sure I could find someone else to do the sweeping for you,” said I, cunningly, still taking my steps backwards, “if you only let me go on my own. The widow Kremer’s got no children. She might like a bit of work to do. And, after all, they say it’s better to have a worker who likes their work, for to them the work comes easy.”

But the demon’s head tilted so scornfully that I knew there wasn’t much chance of winning her over with proverbs. “Better one cow in the stable,” she answered, “than ten in the field.”

I was all the way up against the window by this time. “Fine!” said I, and gave my head a great toss. “Have it your way, then!”

The shawl I wore on my head that night was my very nicest—made from the softest wool, and dyed in patterns of blue and green with shimmering threads woven through it. They didn’t make anything of the sort around here. My father had bought it for my mother from a traveling peddler before she died. The only trouble with it was that it was so smooth, it didn’t hold a knot well in the least, and would fall off my head at the slightest provocation. It really was a miracle I hadn’t lost it before now.

As I tossed my head, it slipped off my hair back through the open window.

As soon as it fell, the window slammed shut with a shriek of hinges, and my arms and legs all struck up with terrible pins and needles, as if they’d fallen asleep at once. I couldn’t have moved an inch from where I stood no matter how I tried. “It won’t be the least use,” the demon said, and her ringing voice was even more scornful than before. “That little thing will blow so far away, there’s not a chance anyone will come here to find you.”

“You’ve a right to your opinion,” I answered. Certainly I’d already had plenty of bad luck that night. Still, they say an unlucky person is a dead person. I wasn’t dead yet, and that meant my luck might still turn. The scarf might catch on something right nearby, and then—well, then we would see!

After that came one of the worst times that I ever had in my life. The demon was good as her word. She told me where the broom was, and set me to sweeping the house. “As a first step,” said she, “and we’ll think what to do with you after.”

I didn’t like the way she said that in the least. Most things have the decency to be either dull and safe, or frightening and exciting. Dull and frightening both at once is really just too much! Still, if ever I so much as looked at the door, my legs came all over pins and needles again, so there wasn’t much to do but carry on.

Also, the child would keep crying, and that demoness didn’t seem to know a thing about making him stop. It drove me near distraction, let me tell you! It’s bad enough sweeping and scrubbing til your knees and elbows ache without having your eardrums ache as well. The child’s voice didn’t sound particularly out of the ordinary, not at all like his mother’s, but even a normal child can scream like a demon when it’s got a mind to, and that child certainly did. I started thinking twice then about ever wishing my cousin and that husband of hers would have children, at least so long as they were still living in our house.

It seemed a million years I was in that house, trying to clean all by myself a place that hadn’t been cleaned in a year. However, it can’t have been all that long in the end, for the dawn hadn’t yet broken when a firm knocking came at the door.

Everybody knew that Yitl Szmirgeld’s house had been standing empty for months, and it was the middle of the night besides, so I knew then that my luck hadn’t run out completely. I shouted out for help at the top of my lungs, and glanced over at the demoness. Maybe I looked a little smug, for hadn’t she said that nobody would come?

And wasn’t I surprised to find she herself looking just as smug as a pile of empty wrappings could look! “This will do just as well,” said the demon to me, “for it seems you weren’t lying when you said you were a very indifferent sweeper, and I’d be very loath to trust you with my child.”

I realized what she meant a moment later—and perhaps you’d think I ought to have realized it sooner, so it’s just as well that I’ve never been one to boast of my own cleverness (unlike some persons I could name).

I opened my mouth to shout again, a warning this time, but before I could say a word about it, my cousin’s husband tumbled straight into the house through the same broken window I’d come in by. He stood up and dusted himself off, cool as you please, before taking in the scene. “It’s all right for you to come in, Bluma!” he called. “It’s only a demon here with Shaina!”

“What kind of a fool are you?” I snapped—for of all the people I’d thought might to come rescue me, I can’t exactly say that know-it-all Yudah Cohen was the one I’d had in mind. “If she comes in, it’ll be three of us stuck here!”

But my cousin’s husband only grinned. “You hear that, Bluma?” he said. “If you come through that window, you might well be stuck here forever.”

“I’m already stuck with you forever,” said Bluma, who was already halfway through the window, “so I don’t see as how much will change.”

“Well, if that’s how it is,” said my cousin’s husband, laughing, and went to help her the rest of the way through the window.

I began to regret throwing that scarf out after all, and to wonder if I should have taken more time to consider the advantages of being trapped by a demon alone for eternity.

The demoness, meanwhile, was looking pleased as could be. “I didn’t think I’d get so lucky!” she said. “Now, with the three of you, I could really get something done. Bluma and Rokhl to watch the baby, and then I think I’ll take Shaina to run errands and do a little mischief. How I’ve missed being out and about! ”

I didn’t know what the demon was talking about, for the only Rokhl I knew was Gittel’s three-year-old niece. Still, at least it got Yudah and Bluma to stop making eyes at each other and started paying attention to what was going on in front of their faces.

“We can’t allow that, I’m afraid,” said Yudah, to the demon. “Our Shaina’s a very modern girl, you know, and doesn’t in the least believe in demons, which I’m sure makes this situation very embarrassing for all of us.”

And personally I think it’s really uncalled-for to pull the leg of anybody who’s in a fix like I was. As if I didn’t have to deal with enough right then!

“Now, listen here, Rokhl,” the demon began, but Yudah interrupted her.

“You and I both know that’s not my name, so why don’t you get it right?”

“Certainly it’s your name,” said the demon, irritably. “Did your father whisper the name Yudah into the ear of a mohel? Did he give you a bris? Of course he didn’t. That would have been ridiculous. He told the synagogue your name was Rachel bat Shemuel, and Rokhl’s what the Russians wrote down in their records, and that’s the name you have.”

The demon seemed awfully certain she knew what she was talking about. I turned to gape at Yudah Cohen, but he didn’t seem the least bit bothered. “So what? Did Isaac give his son the name Israel? No, he named him Jacob, but by his deeds he was given a new name, and his children were the sons of Israel, and nobody argues twice about it.”

“Oh,” scoffed the demon, “so you think you’re as good as one of the patriarchs!”

“I don’t think I’m any better than him,” said Yudah, “but I don’t think I’m all that much worse,” which is exactly the kind of thing you’d expect, from someone as cocky as my cousin’s husband. “And I might never have wrestled with an angel, but I won’t think twice about wrestling with a demon, if it comes to that.”

There was a little bit of a silence at this. The demon frowned at Yudah, like she was re-sizing him up, and Yudah folded his arms and frowned right back at the demon. Meanwhile, I kept staring at Yudah, trying to fit what the demon had said into everything I knew about him, and having no luck whatsoever. As I’ve said, with all those brothers, I know a thing or two about boys—and for all the time he’d lived in our house, he’d certainly never seemed like anything besides another know-it-all boy to me!

In the end, it was Bluma who spoke first. “Well!” said she, standing with her arms folded, and looking as unimpressed as ever I had seen her. “Wouldn’t think twice, would you? It’s as well I came along, it seems! Before you start wrestling with a succubus, please remember, Yudah Cohen, that you’re a married man!”

“You ought to listen to her,” said the demon, recovering her equilibrium. “She seems the most sensible of the lot of you.” I made a face, though nobody was looking, for Bluma certainly didn’t need the encouragement. “If you call yourself a scholar, Yudah Cohen,” the demon went on, “you should know very well that I’ve got no body to be hurt—and if you stepped into my arms, I can assure you that you’d not soon leave them again.”

All those choirs singing in the demon’s voice were getting lower and more melodic as she spoke, just as they had when told me I wasn’t leaving. Yudah Cohen looked a little bit tranced by her. He stared under her hood just as if there really was a face there to see. Even worse, when I looked over at Bluma, she looked just as dazed as her husband. The demon took a step closer, and neither of them made a single move to stop her.

Please don’t,” I wailed, “or I’m likely to die of embarrassment right here!” To watch my cousin and her husband seduced by a demon right in front of me was really beyond the pale!

Yudah Cohen blinked. Then he burst out laughing. Once he’d begun, it only took a moment for Bluma to catch the fever. They chortled away, leaning on each other and clutching their sides, while the demon fumed away in one corner and I fumed away in the other—well, you’d feel the same about being laughed at, in a situation like this!

Eventually, Yudah managed to get hold of himself enough to say, “Well, you see how it is. You’d better let us go now before our Shaina really does keel over. You might intimidate a girl like her, who doesn’t know a demon from a doorstopper, but you’ll have to go a little further to impress me—” Which I thought was something rich, given that both he and Bluma had looked ready to walk straight into her arms just a moment ago! “Or have I got to exorcize the whole house before you’ll see sense?”

“You can’t chase me out with that!” retorted the demon. “This house is my son’s, and I’ve every right to be here. You’re the ones who intruded on my property!”

“That old argument!” said Yudah Cohen, who was now showing every sign of enjoying himself as much as he did when he argued a bit of Talmud with my father or my brothers. “Why, that was settled in Poznan long ago, as I’m sure you’ll recall. The demon offspring even brought their suit to the court to claim their inheritance of the house, but the court said it wouldn’t wash. A demon cannot inherit property in the land of men, for the proper place of a demon is among the deserts and waste lands. That’s straight from the Ramban. Now, this house certainly looks run down, but I don’t think anybody could fairly call it a desert or a wasteland, from a legal standpoint.”

“Do you really think a court case from the seventeenth century is going to make me leave this place?” snarled the demon.

“So you are familiar with the case!” said Yudah, looking more pleased with himself than ever. “Well, of course it will make you leave, for you’ve no right to be here to begin with, and if Shaina had done anything to summon you, you would have said so before now. You haven’t a leg to stand on, I’m afraid—and while we’re on the topic of standing—”

“What now!” snapped the demon.

The edge in her voice was clearly the last straw for the child, for he set up as great a wailing as you’ve ever heard. I clapped my hands over my ears, and the demon let out a shriek of her own that was just a little bit less terrible. There really isn’t anything quite as awful as a shrieking infant. “Now see what you’ve done! He was only just asleep!”

“It was you that raised your voice,” said Bluma, severely, “and you ought to know better. Here, let me—” With as quick a gesture as ever I saw, she plucked the child right out of the swathe of fabric that served the demon as her arms and began to dandle him, just as if he were my youngest brother.

The demon shrieked again. The cloth that marked her place lost its form and went whirling merrily about the room. Dust began to swirl up, and bits and pieces of abandoned furniture to rock on the floor and in the corners, but Bluma only kept dandling away, and soon enough the baby’s wails began to subside.

Now the demon’s voice came again, swirling first to the left of Bluma, then to the right. Bitterly, she said, “I see it really ought to have been you I caught, Bluma Zilberman.”

“Bluma Cohen,” said Bluma. She jogged the child up onto her shoulder, and it giggled in her arms. “And it wouldn’t have done you any good, you know, for my husband would certainly have come and then the end would have been the same. Now,” she went on, in that same brisk voice, “I can’t say I don’t pity you, for everyone knows raising a child alone is enough to drive anyone out of their senses—”

“Especially,” put in Yudah, “when you’ve got no physical form to begin with, and your child does. Now, here’s what I don’t understand. From all I’ve read, a demon child such as your son here ought to be just as insubstantial as you are, and yet there’s my wife holding him with as much ease as if he were a load of washing. How did that come about?”

“I’d no notion of it either,” the demon admitted. “I myself am the child of a union between one of my kind and one of yours, which gives me a very respectable rank in the world of the spirits—”

“Just as theorized in the Zefunei Zeiyuni,” agreed my cousin’s husband, sagely.

“And so,” the demon went on, “I naturally thought the same would be true of my child as well. But it seems that it’s turned out as nobody could have expected. I don’t know whether it’s the fact that he’s three-quarters human, or all that talk of his father’s—he’d drone on so much about proletariat and the common man that for all I know his words ended up working as a kind of incantation. In either case, the child has most all the disadvantages of your people, and hardly any of the advantages of mine.” She heaved a sigh that roared through all the corners of the aging house. Now that she was confessing her troubles, she seemed just as relieved to have a listening ear for it as she’d been angry a moment before. “Really, I’m at my wit’s end with what to do! I’ve no idea how to care for a human infant. I thought I would raise him in his own house, and then he’d at least start off his way in life with a little property—I certainly can’t take him back with me to the wastelands!”

“I can see how that would be difficult,” said Bluma, a trace of sympathy in her voice.

“Difficult!” said I. “She’s locked me up here all night sweeping, and wanted to possess me, and you’re talking about how it’s difficult for her!”

“Well,” said Yudah Cohen reasonably, “a demon is a demon, after all.” He frowned. “And we certainly can’t leave a demon-infested house in the middle of Vilna for anyone to wander into. Still, an exorcism is a great deal of work, and would involve a great deal of trouble and embarrassment for all the Szmirgelds. Don’t think I’m avoiding it because I’m lazy, but it seems there might be a simpler way.”

He turned, and addressed the general direction from which the demon had last spoken. “I’ve a proposal for you. If we were to find a good home for your child—parents who would take him in, and raise him to inherit their possessions, and teach him to say Kaddish for them once they’re gone—would you depart this place, and go back to the wastes where you belong?”

The demon scoffed once more. “What, a home like yours?” But there was something in her voice, knitted into all the wailing strands of it, that sounded a little bit like hope.

“Ours?” It might have been the first time I’d ever seen my cousin’s husband look taken aback. “I’d been thinking the Widow Kremer,” he said, slowly, “but—” He turned to Bluma, who was still rocking the baby in her arms to keep him quiet. “Well, what do you think? You’ve never been wild about the idea of children.”

Bluma took a moment to answer. “It’s the having of them I don’t like the notion of. The risk of it, and the pain. The raising of them, I don’t mind so much.” She was looking down at the demon’s child, and her face was a picture. I suppose I must have looked just as much a study. I hadn’t known my cousin was afraid of anything, and I have to admit, I liked her a little better for it. I thought maybe I understood some of what she’d been thinking that whole last summer before she married a little better too.

“Anyway, for you—” Bluma looked up, then, and gave her husband a shrewd glance. “Wouldn’t it be better for you, in your position, if we came by a child one way or another?”

“My position!” said Yudah Cohen. “Really, you’ve got no faith in me at all—to think I can’t maintain my position without making you unhappy! If that were the case, you shouldn’t have married me to begin with.” He came over to Bluma, and took her face in his hands—the better to look at her, I suppose, though why he couldn’t do so from half a foot away is a mystery to me. Really, I don’t understand married people at all.

“If it would make you happy to have a child,” he told her, “say yes. If it wouldn’t, say no. It’s no more or less simple than that.”

Bluma clicked her tongue, and then heaved a great sigh, and then stood for a while looking down at the baby.

“You’re the rabbi,” she said, eventually, “so you tell me—can a demon’s child count as a miracle? Certainly, if an angel had told me this morning that I’d be a mother tonight, I’d have laughed in his face. But if God drops a child in our lap, then who am I to argue?”

Well, you can see by now what was bound to happen, so I don’t need to go on and on about it, do I?

The demon did take her own time leaving, swearing on this and that that if the child was not well-cared for that her vengeance would fall down a hundredfold. Still, she seemed more relieved than anything to be on her way. Certainly we were relieved to be about ours. All the same, I couldn’t help but be a little bit downcast, for I’d spent the whole night with Yitl Szmirgeld’s demon child, and I knew the kind of noise for which we were likely to be in store. As if the house wasn’t already small enough!

I was expecting a tongue-lashing about my folly in getting myself into such a scrape to begin with, and was all set to defend myself, but Yudah and Bluma were absorbed with the child the whole way home. Having never before left the house where it was born, it fussed and cried and needed soothing and attention—and that, I thought, was how it was likely to be from then on.

They went off to their room with the child, and I went off to mine. However, I’d not even gotten my shoes off before Bluma stuck her head round the doorpost again, looking as fierce as ever I’d seen her. “Shaina,” she hissed, “if you say a thing to anyone at all about what that demon said about my husband, I’ll tell your father all about this scheme tonight to sneak off to the theater, and you see then if you set a foot out the door until you’re married!”

I scowled at her. Bluma can be a real bully when she wants. “You’re the one who minds when I go out,” said I, “not he—but I won’t say a thing. Is it my business if you’ve peculiar taste in husbands?”

Bluma made a face at me, but she looked a little easier. She came and sat on the foot of my bed. “Your father would mind if he knew, and you know it. You think of all the times I’ve covered for you!”

“It’s less than the number of times you’ve scolded me,” said I.

“Most times,” said Bluma, “I do both,” and in this I had to admit she wasn’t wrong.

“Well, I’m covering for you now, so we’re even. How did you find me tonight, anyway?” I asked, for this was something I’d been wondering about.

“Oh! My mother found your scarf,” said Bluma, “and kicked up a great fuss about it, so I got Yudah out of bed, and we went out looking for you.” That made me wonder again where Tante Leah had been, and where she might have gotten to now, for it was nearly dawn already and she certainly wasn’t at home. Before I could ask, Bluma went on, “It really sets my hair on end, thinking what kind of trouble you’ll get into when we’re gone. You’ll run away with the theater troupe, I’ve no doubt.”

“I haven’t the least notion of doing any such thing!” said I, in great indignation, before I realized what she’d said. “What do you mean, when you’re gone?”

“Well, we’ll have to leave Vilna, of course,” said Bluma, in her matter-of-fact way. “How would we explain the child, when all our neighbors have spent the past nine months watching my belly? No, if it’s to be of any practical use, we’ll have to go where nobody knows us. Yudah’s had a scheme in mind for months, but there didn’t seem to be a need for it as yet. And I didn’t know if I was ready to leave and be a stranger somewhere.”

I didn’t know what to say. I’d dreamed for years of the day when Bluma would move out and leave me to my business, but I’d always thought she’d be going down the street, or across the neighborhood. I certainly had never thought she’d go all the way to another city.

But my cousin Bluma, she’s never at a loss. Seeing my face, she smiled at me, and said, “So! Isn’t it a lucky day for you, after all? Your own room, soon, and no baby to wake you up at all hours of the night, and nobody to tell you good sense, which you’re then put to the bother of ignoring so that you can get into trouble like you did tonight.”

I scoffed at her. “Like I did tonight? As if you thought it likely I would encounter a demon! Who could expect that such a thing would really happen?”

“Well! If I’d said specifically that I expected such a thing as a demon or a werewolf to be wandering the streets at night, you wouldn’t have listened anyway,” said Bluma, with such a know-it-all air that it really made her want to pinch her. Pretending that she’d really been worried about a thing like a demon all the time is just what you’d expect of my cousin; I swear, that she and that husband of hers deserve each other!

Anyway, it happened just as she’d said. Hardly a day had passed before Bluma and Yudah were on their way to Lodz, with Tante Leah and Yitl Szmirgeld’s demon infant in tow, and a goat they bought for the milk. Now all that’s left in the house besides myself is my father and my brothers, arguing as they always do—and certainly that’s plenty of noise and bustle, and there’s plenty of times I feel as much of a need to get out of the house as ever I did.

That’s why Gittel and I have come up with a scheme of our own. We’ve got our things packed, and our train tickets bought, and we’re decided that we’re to take a trip to Lodz to visit my cousins.

Certainly, my father won’t be best pleased when he reads the note I’ve left him, and even more certainly, Bluma will scold our ears half off when we show up. Still, I expect it will make her feel better, in a strange city, to have something familiar to do—even if that’s just delivering the same lecture to me that she’s done a hundred times before. Honestly, to hear the way Bluma goes on about a little thing like two young women taking a trip on the train by themselves, you’d really think we were still living in the nineteenth century!

About the Author

Rebecca Fraimow

Rebecca Fraimow is an author and archivist living in Boston, writing primarily science fiction and fantasy. Rebecca’s short fiction has appeared in venues including PodCastle, Diabolical Plots, and The Long List Anthology Volume Seven: More Stories from the Hugo Award Nomination List. Rebecca’s debut novella, The Iron Children, came out from Solaris in April 2023; her full-length debut novel, Lady Eve’s Last Con, is forthcoming in June 2024.

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About the Narrator

Barbara Krasnoff

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Barbara Krasnoff has had short stories in over 45 print and online publications, including Space & Time, Andromeda Spaceways, Mythic Delirium, Abyss & Apex, and a variety of others. Her story “Sabbath Wine,” which was published in the anthology Clockwork Phoenix 5, was a Nebula Award finalist. The History of Soul 2065, her mosaic novel published by Mythic Delirium Books, follows several generations of two mystical Jewish families. She earns her living as Reviews Editor at The Verge. You can find her website at Brooklynwriter.com.

Find more by Barbara Krasnoff