Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 173 (previously 49e) - Your Fingers Like Pen and Ink by Jeannelle M. Ferreira - transcript
(Originally aired 2020/08/29 - listen here)
There are so many joys I’ve gotten from the fiction series on this podcast. The joy of being someone’s first professional sale. The joy of providing a venue for an ongoing series. The joy coaxing a new story out of an author while waiting impatiently for her next novel.
Today’s story was written by Jeanelle M. Ferreira who writes queer historical romance and sometimes poetry. In 2020, her work will appear in Climbing Lightly Through Forests, an anthology tribute to Ursula K. LeGuin (edited by R. B. Lemberg and Lisa M. Bradley, from Aqueduct Press). She notes that she is beyond thrilled to take part in the Lesbian Historical Motif Podcast Fiction project, and not just because the world needs more historical Jewish lesbians. She is also finishing the sequel to 2018’s The Covert Captain and deeply regrets buying that melodica for her spouse and child. Find her on Twitter @jeannellewrites, particularly if you have thoughts on late Georgian coaching inns and post roads.
Our narrator today is Violet Dixon, who is sheltering in place from Covid-19 outside Philadelphia with her wife, two teen sons, and four tolerant cats. When not Zoom coaching or social distancing in the recording booth, she is an award-winning stage director. She has previously done author narration for lesbian novels such as KC Luck’s Darknessseries and Jeannelle M. Ferreira’s The Covert Captain.
This recording is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License. You may share it in the full original form but you may not sell it, you may not transcribe it, and you may not adapt it.
Your Fingers Like Pen and Ink
Jeannelle M. Ferreira
Oy, dayne eygelekh vi di shvartse karshelekh / Un dayne lipelekh vi roseve papir / Un dayne fingerlekh vi tint un vi feder / Oy, shraybn zolstu ofte briv tsu mir.
Oh, your eyes like black cherries
And your lips like rosy paper
And your fingers like pen and ink
Oh, that you might write often to me.
Tr. Sonya Taaffe, 2006
It was almost too late in the spring for coltsfoot. Her back ached from bending, her hands hurt from twisting stems, and she had gone further into the forest than she meant. The river laughed, just ahead of her sight; the sun had sunk behind.
A feldsher’sdaughter would never grow tall, nor carry the muscle of a day’s work in the rye, but she could take care of herself; besides, she was nothing much to look at and thirty-six. A double blessing, if only she worked out what the blessing was. Meantime she held her hair off her neck, for a moment’s coolness, brushed her hands clean, and was not afraid of the woods.
An arm was round her waist from behind, a light hand at her throat, and Malke found herself held and bent like a reed.
“You shouldn’t go so far. You never know who might be out here.”
“The worst people,” she replied, and turned to face Hanie Apteyker.
She was pale and clever-mouthed, cut narrower than most of the boys she taught and taller than Malke by head and shoulders. She looked elegant in a hat and kapote two hundred years out of fashion, her hands were always ink-speckled, and Malke felt a sweet ridiculous fondness every time she —
“Hanie, no.” Malke got a good look at her. “Not again.”
“Never mind it.” Hanie pushed her wrist over her wrecked cheekbone carelessly as if she flicked off a fly. She was still wearing the clothes she taught in, walked in, and the men who came through Koshany in the Czar’s uniform would have seen not Hanie, but Heskel, a thin enough bone to pick and not quite worn-down enough to be worth ignoring.
“Never mind an eye like that!” Malke grit her teeth. “Did you fight back?”
“Of course I — not much!”
“Love, what did they want from you?”
“They seemed upset I wouldn’t let go my book.” Hanie shrugged. “But I never learned to speak fluent idiot, so what do I know?”
One of Hanie’s peyeshad been cut off, with a slow knife or a dull one. She looked a little lopsided, a little ragged, and Malke felt fear-dryness in her own throat. “Just give them what they want next time, please, please.”
“I couldn’t. Not this one. Read it,” said Hanie, and held out a plain cloth-covered book, not larger than her hand.
“You know I can’t!”
“You can. That’s just the point.”
It was printed in Yiddish. “Sefer ha-Yashar,” Malke read. “M, D, X, C—” With the Latin alphabet she was much slower, and could not have sounded these letters into any word at all.
“So old — and in Yiddish! It must have been written for a woman.” The light was fading, the tall grass and the river never silent, but Malke felt as though the two of them were standing in some long-ago woman’s room, with books of her own and time to read them, time to think in her own language.
“Or by a woman. By — someone like me.” A half-grin, shy, made it past Hanie’s bruises. “I wanted to show it to you, before I sell it.”
“You could make your name from this!”
“I have a name.” Hanie-clothed-as-Heskel shrugged. “I’d like other things more. I’d like to get us out of here, before —”
“Us,” echoed Malke. “You work too much, and you study too long, and your girl never sees you.”
“You should be my wife.”
“If I could, if I could! What’s your plan, scholar?” There was no one here with them but the river; this was where they had always come, with secrets the village could not hold and plans so wide only a river could believe them.
“This.” Hanie tapped the book where it lay tucked inside her shirt. “I’m taking it to Odessa.” Odessa, she said, as if it were not saying into hell oronto the moon.
“You walking there? Walk me home. I’m starving.”
Hanie put one of Malke’s clean aprons on without tying it. There was a potato for each of them and one for the pan, a little schmaltz, but no bread, and Malke would not let her walk three streets to the baker’s back door in the dark. She took her time brushing the worst of the mud from Hanie’s jacket, while the room grew warm and the food began to smell worth eating, but there was nothing to be done for the trouser knees or the hat.
That Heskel the teacher boarded most often at Nathan the feldsher’s house, even now there was a stone on Nathan’s grave and his son’s, the village knew; all of Koshany knew everyone’s everything, but they had needed someone underpaid to teach cheder.
They needed a feldsher, too, and a midwife. It was a slim thread of power only — a younger rabbi might have shouted her down, a less fond father married her off — but it gave Malke these two rooms, and money sometimes. She stitched cuts, broke fevers, held babies away from Lilith, and when Hanie Apteyker had come back to the feldsher’s house wearing the road-dust of Kiev and a pair of trousers, Malke got Koshany’s silence in return.
“Malkeleh, what? You’re staring.”
Malke looked at her, the beaten-white of her linen, the blossom-white of her shoulder; her dark brows a worried question, her cropped hair and its lone front curl. “I want to paint you.”
“No, I, no.” Hanie shook her head. “In America, Malka sheyne, let me buy you all the colors in the world, but here — paint your roots and leaves, please.”
“We’re four hundred rubles from America.” Malke, nettled, ducked past Hanie’s reach.
“It’s too much risk. What if someone saw it, what if they see —”
Malke snorted. She took down her herbal from the room’s one high shelf, its weight falling familiar onto her chest, and she let it open across the table, over the tin plates and the salt dish. The book’s pages crackled with water-wear and long use; dried buds and bracken sifted onto the tablecloth. There were leaves and roots painted in it, every plant Malke had picked or distilled or put down in tincture, the undersketches thick at first and then, years and pages passing, clean and fine. Her father’s handwriting and then her own, better script, for a cough, for bone-setting, for wanting something one could not have, for getting something one should not want.
In the margins, there were pictures — Koshany’s fences and livestock, in broad strokes with ink; little pencil drawings of faces and houses. Nothing to spend color on, only a village aging with the artist who observed it.
The sketch of a young girl by the study house, half a minute’s work except for her plaits, long and careful, inked black. A corner some pages later and the same girl in it, a sack on one shoulder and a book in her opposite hand. Ten pages, twelve pages, a year of young Malke’s work slipped past, and here and now Hanie’s arm had gone round her waist. Drawn in quick as glances, the girl with black braids in the women’s gallery, in the market square, wearing some boy’s stolen hat.
More than half through the book, her father’s lettering long vanished, Malke found it.
An entire, costly page had been given to one subject, ink and charcoal to catch darkness or light, with touches of burnt umber for eyes and brows, alizarin fading at the lips.
“It’s me.” Hanie sounded young, as if she had lent her voice to that girl in the portrait. “You saw — me.”
“I remembered you. You were already gone. I think it was another year before you learned to post a letter.” Malke shrugged. “I don’t think oil and canvas will compound my sins, I’m saying.”
She woke the next morning in Hanie’s arms, very romantic but for the cover of a book shoving her in the ribs. Hanie’s questions were still in her head, why didn’t you tell me, why didn’t you ask me not to go? As if the girl Malke had been could ever have given words to her own heart.
Hanie was reading, two more volumes were in the bed with them, and sometime near dawn she had been outdoors: her boots on the floor, too close to Malke’s rag-rug, were covered in wet grass.
“Bought bread,” she said, then cleared her throat. “Persuaded. Persuaded Moshe about some bread.”
“Where’s toast, then?”
“I was researching.” Hanie opened her embrace to indicate the little, plain-bound book between them. The Sefer ha-Yashar was heavy, for something so small, and it did not fall open as easily as it should for a book so very old. Malke was resolute in her skepticism, for all a good feldsher stayed just aside of magic, but there was something —
“Toast,” she said, absolutely firmly, and made her feet touch the floor.
Breakfast took no time at all, even with the last scrape of jam chased from the jar; there were no dishes, and there was only one road out of the village. It was a clear morning, no clouds, no damp, nothing to slow a person well used to walking. Hanie sat on the table’s edge, badly-dented cap in one hand. She had always been the kind to read five books before speaking one word, but she seemed to wait now for some permission Malke scarcely knew how to give.
“You can’t go to Odessa dressed like the milkman.” Malke lifted the floorboard beneath which everything of value — paints, sketchbook, fifty rubles and her father’s own herbal — was hidden, and pulled up something squared and soft, kept from the earth’s touch by oilcloth and a layer of plain linen tucked through with white mint and thyme.
It was a young man’s suit, a sharp Warsaw suit, maybe only five years old; it had pinstripes, jet buttons, a wing-collar shirt. It was wool so fine Malke’s fingertips, as she held the morning coat out to Hanie, didn’t catch on the weave.
“I couldn’t, I don’t dare.”
“Shmuel doesn’t want it. He didn’t when he was alive, either, don’t make that face. Auntie Eva made it over from our cousin, and it pinched.”
Hanie, who had walked out of Koshany fifteen years before in a Romani shawl and plaits, stood in the big room of the feldsher’s cottage and looked like a city boy who had lost a tavern fight. Malke’s voice was a wet sound on stones, all over again, her eyes were prickling and her hands twisted tight in her skirts and fifteen years wasn’t time enough for some things to change: she said something useless as spent coals.
“Oy, your boots. Well, maybe even in Odessa no one walks in their shul shoes.”
“Wait.” With the case-knife she kept sharp enough for foxglove stems, Malke cut Hanie’s remaining peyes. Hanie put up one hand to the shorn spot, as if she’d been hurt; Malke, with the dark curl kept safe between thumb and palm, wanted to kiss her.
“It suits you,” she said first, bravely.
She thought she might never sleep again. The rain was a drum on the roof thatch, the wind was full of women’s voices, and the feldsher’s house smelled acrid from three ointments she had let burn. There was white camphor and speedwell to start again in the morning, a spatter-mark searing at her wrist, and only a trace of Hanie’s scent left in the pillows.
The butcher’s dog was barking. Then the hatmaker’s dog, and the paper-seller’s dog two doors beyond. She was no longer used to this, to the nonsense of being a woman alone in a house; Malke pulled the quilts over her head, as if it might help, and when the knock came she lay shaking-still.
Out in the darkness, someone was fumbling the front-door latch.
“Malke! Malkeleh, are you all right?”
It was a small house, no more than four steps to the door. “God’s sake! You knock like a Cossack!”
“Wait! It’s wet! I’m wet!” Hanie, soaked and sodden down to the new split in her left boot, tried half a second to keep from Malke’s arms.
“You’re real. You can’t be real. It’s a week’s walk to Odessa. A week back.”
“Malke, hush, I didn’t go near it. I fell into the river.”
“It took you three days to fall in the river?”
“The big river,” Hanie amended, shrugging and holding on to Malke all at once. They had never kissed on the doorstep, or in a downpour, but it was the blackest hour of morning and Hanie’s mouth was warm. She laughed, too, between kisses, against Malke’s cheekbone, against her throat. “I swear I would have sent a letter, but all I’ve got in my pockets is river-water. Come inside and look, look at this.”
As they dripped and shivered, by the growing light of a fire half kicked, half coaxed to life, Hanie pulled the small, familiar book from beneath her shirt. The Sefer ha-Yashar had been half drowned in the Dniester; its plain pale cover fell by threads and drenched fragments to the floor. Hanie shook it, hard, as Malke had never seen her mistreat any book.
It did not fly apart at the spine. The pages sagged, water streamed from it, and Hanie was still holding the book as if its pasteboard was not melting away in her hands.
She faced the firelight with it, and Malke shouted.
“Pearls,” she whispered, when she could, at least not acting the fool she felt.
“Garnets. A sapphire. I don’t know the purple.” Hanie held the book out to Malke. “I know gold, when it’s heavy enough to drown me. It didn’t, Malkeleh, say something?”
“A woman’s book,” she managed. “We can’t, we can’t take these. They belong to her family.”
“Her family was three hundred years ago, in Venice. I got this off Dmitri the carter for three kopeks, and it belongs to us.”
“Off you go again, us.” Malke sniffled. Hadn’t she spent twenty minutes in the rain?
“I’ve got enough here to be married.” Hanie brushed over the sapphire, the size of her small finger’s nail. “We could leave in the morning, if we wanted. More or less. If only we dry.”
“Leave Koshany? They won’t have… there won’t be a feldsher.”
“No.” Hanie looked at Malke, looking lost, and gently took her hand. “There will be Malke Pecherska, a botanical painter in America.”
“Malke Apteyker, I thought. Did you change your name in that river?”
The LHMPodcast fiction series presents a story by Jeannelle M. Ferreira, set in a late 19th century Russian Jewish community. Jeannelle is also the author of The Covert Captain: or, A Marriage of Equals. The story is narrated by Violet Dixon, who also recorded the audiobook of The Covert Captain.
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Links to Jeannelle M. Ferreira Online