As the broken yellow lines on the pavement outside the window turned solid, Sarah moved to lower the window shade and felt a hand on her elbow, fingers wrapping gently around her arm. “Pjyalsta?” the girl next to her asked, her voice thick, accent familiar. “Please? Would you understand?”
Sarah’s hands dropped, meshing tight and red over her growing belly. The girl—tall, blonde, the sort of woman you assumed attractive without further inspection—had asked the question once before, “Would you understand?” And Sarah nodded then as well, giving up her aisle seat to the girl who had pointed at the silent, lean-limbed man behind her and said, “My husband, he is so tall. Would you understand?”
A voice in the wrong language came over the loudspeaker; Sarah only caught snippets, her Russian gone threadbare since Bram died. She tried to imagine what it would feel like to be the kind of person who could close the shade despite her neighbor’s please, or better still, a person who wasn’t terrified by the window to begin with. Miracles could happen, but she might have had her fill by forty-six.
* * *
Bram called himself Bramya when they met. Sarah had just graduated from art school; in the stall at the farmers’ market where she sold clay models, Bramya inspected the insects she’d fired and held up a moth. He dug five loose dollar bills from his pocket, and Sarah felt the friction of slow words from the back of his throat when he thanked her: “Spaseeba, motylyok.” He only spoke Russian when he needed perfect words. He held the moth delicately between his hands, as fragile as a living thing.
Sarah hadn’t planned on moths, but as Bramya told her about leaving Saint Petersburg for NYU, her hands worked through clay without thought, adding a legion of moths to the insects that already towered above the other animals. Bramya went to the farmers’ market every Saturday for months and with wrinkled dollar bills bought Sarah’s fingerprints, like scales and veins in polymer wings. In the days between, Sarah anticipated the sight of him: his coarse beard, dark curls, the thin-rimmed glasses that attracted his eyes and mouth towards the center of his face, like he was concentrating on everything. When he said her name, his tongue rolled Sarah into an endless syllable.
The first time Sarah saw his apartment, after he had hesitantly kissed her outside his building, and then less hesitantly, kissed her in the narrow staircase that led to his floor, and then without hesitation, kissed her on his salvaged desk, she saw dozens of her moths tacked to the walls of his apartment, each pierced through its faux-thorax with a hatpin. In the morning, he called her Milaya moli. My moth. At the farmers’ market that weekend, he brought her clay.
* * *
The flight attendant stood in the center aisle of the plane, fastening an untethered seatbelt around her waist and then dropping it to the side. Sarah’s mind filled with morning-mares, day-mares, red-eye-to-Pulkovo-mares, changes in cabin pressure, crumpling metal, water landings. The girl’s elbow dominated the armrest. Sarah meshed her fingers tighter still over her stomach as the flight attendants strapped themselves in at the back of the plane. She didn’t know how to fly alone.
* * *
In a few months’ time, Bramya asked Sarah to marry him. His family couldn’t afford the trip from Russia, and her family was long gone; when they found a temple, they spoke to the rabbi and were married the same day.
Only the Edelsteins from downstairs could make it on such short notice, and they brought a pair of lightbulbs by way of wedding gift: one to replace the bulb in the kitchen that had been on the fritz; the other to be crushed under white lace after the exchange of rings. But the bulb didn’t break at Bramya’s first attempt, rolling instead out from under the kippah and away from his foot, down the carpeted stairs. The Edelmans shouted “Mazel tov!” all the same, and their voices rung through the empty hall, their echoes taking the place of the mishpocheh, the family that wasn’t there.
* * *
The girl held her husband’s hand as his head gently lolled from side to side in sleep. She held a Cyrillic tabloid inches from her eyes, starved for broad-foreheaded blondes Sarah couldn’t name.
The cabin shook as the plane accelerated and Sarah reached for the end of the divider between them, her hands blanched again. She pressed back into the upholstered seat as they pushed mile and mile closer to Saint Petersburg.
The girl folded the tabloid in her lap and pointed at the hand Sarah had wrapped around the armrest next to the window, the one she had to herself. She asked, “You are American, yes?”
Sarah nodded, and the woman introduced herself, her long fingers ending in enamel tips splayed against her chest: “Masha.”
Sarah waved quickly before returning her shaking hand to the curve of her stomach, newly stiffening joints comforting themselves in their arthritic tensing. “Sarah,” she said.
“You are going to Piter?”
“I am. You?”
“We are going home after honeymoon. Outside of Piter. Sertolovo. You know Sertolovo?”
Sarah scanned the atlas in her head, remembering the few trips Bram had taken her on, to meet his family or to visit the work site, and came up empty. “I don’t think so.”
“It is small, but it is home. Many statues. I tell Pyotr, I want to live in Piter, but he has job in Sertolovo now, so I cannot argue.” Masha paused a moment. “You are scared, yes? Why do you travel alone?”
* * *
After graduation, Bramya got a job researching deepwater at the Kola Superdeep Borehole on the northern coast of Russia. The company paid him well to travel, and the pair would lock the apartment door for weeks at a time, crossing the 300 bridges of the 300 islands that made up Bramya’s home. She met his mother, who spoke to Sarah in stilted Hebrew and to Bram in brisk Russian, leaving Sarah in an ear-splitting silence until they settled into the boarding house near the Borehole.
Before her last trip to Kola, five years after they’d gotten married and before they’d decided it was time, Sarah’s doctor called to say that she was pregnant, barely more than a month along. “B’sha’ah tovah,” Dr. Foltz said, though the baby hadn’t yet hit the fortieth day, when the soul finds its home in an empty child. In the two weeks they spent in Kola, Bramya rushed back to the boarding house every night to press his ear against her stomach and swear he heard something stirring. After they flew home, Sarah visited Dr. Foltz’s office for a check-up, and the doctor told her that the baby had washed away somewhere in Siberia. Sarah passed up plane rides afterwards, not wanting to risk losing something they might’ve wanted, not when they’d just started thinking, maybe, about wanting.
* * *
Sarah concentrated on the flow of oxygen as she breathed in through her mouth, out through her nostrils, and she felt calm for a moment until she realized how loudly this made her whistle, so she breathed through her mouth again.
“I don’t travel alone.”
She put her hand over her belly and rubbed, though her stomach had not yet taken on the telltale swell. She had made it to her second trimester for the first time, but Dr. Foltz had warned her that her worries were far from over. Conception alone was a lucky accident.
The plane hit an air pocket and Sarah’s hands shook. But this child had made it through the fortieth day, the thirteenth week. The relative dangers had passed by the second trimester, and she had waited long enough.
* * *
When Bramya was abroad, Sarah mixed adhesives, ordered glaze, saw friends, and lived without the expectation of change to this arrangement. She read his letters and answered his phone calls, and they talked about the things they did when they were apart, neither acknowledging that separation had come to be as familiar as the shape their bodies took together. But when she knew his flight had landed, she sat at the kitchen table with painful patience, rolling clay from hand to hand until it was made pliable by the heat of her skin, piecing together anxiety animals, anticipating the sound of the cab door closing that told her Bramya was on her street.
She reveled in the almost-agony of waiting to touch him, her whole life made up of the ecstatic moment, of waiting on the right side of the doorway while she watched the doorknob turn, knowing that he was on the other side with his duffel bag and dirt or sand or clay for her from wherever he’d just been. It was in these moments that she knew she could never love his presence as much as she could his almost-presence.
In the riot of water samples and larger kilns, travel budgets and gallery openings, the day-to-day everythings of life swept past. She was pregnant, and then, she was not.
Dr. Foltz called at five weeks, told Sarah the news, and said again, “B’sha’ah tovah,” and again, by the time Sarah had her next appointment, the child had slipped away; this time on a train ride to Boston: a red spot, a tissued mass. Six times. Once on a cab ride to Brooklyn. Once on a bus, on a bicycle, once on a walk from the bed to the bathroom. None had lasted long enough for Sarah to be allowed to mourn. Her rabbi blessed the blood stains without souls the way he blessed children’s hamsters and fish, a blessing for the owner of the baruch-less flesh, not the flesh itself.
When Bramya was scheduled to fly home, Sarah did not sculpt, though she worked the clay as though it could salve her nerves. While she kneaded the polymer soft in her hands, she prayed.
* * *
Masha’s eyes followed Sarah’s face, tracking wrinkles and gray hairs, and Sarah felt Dr. Foltz’s warning again: “You’re not a kid anymore.” Sarah resolved to hate Masha for one moment, but only one.
Masha rattled her stuck eyes free. “But what am I thinking? B’sha’ah tovah! This is right—you are Jew, yes?”
Sarah leaned back in her seat, not liking the sound of the word without the article.
Masha pointed at her husband, then at Sarah. “He is Jew. You look like him, little bit.”
Sarah paused before agreeing.
“My Pyotr’s rabbi made me take bath before we wed. Bath before old men in tallits.”
Masha shuddered. “But it is done now. The father, he is Jew?”
Masha gestured at Sarah’s stomach. “And you travel with only little baby? Where is father?”
Sarah weighed her response, choosing only to tell a small truth. “Saint Petersburg.”
Masha gestured at her husband. “Pyotr is from Piter. Big. Cosmopolitan. Not like Sertolovo. When I go to Piter for first time, I feel small, like little doll.”
Sarah liked the way doll unfurled from the back of Masha’s throat, the word coming out warm from inside her. Despite months of Bramya’s absence, over a lifetime of his absence, Masha’s accent made Sarah miss him again.
* * *
For almost twenty years, things were mostly good until they weren't. He cheated, once, just before the sixth miscarriage.
He flew back early after she’d broken the news. The night he came back, they tried to have sex, and he couldn't stay hard. He told her that he had slept with another woman. Just to see what it felt like, to be inside someone and feel like he was moving more than rocks and dirt. That maybe he was building something. She did not stop him when he sobbed. It was the first time she had ever made a man cry, and she felt powerful.
For a week afterward, she waited until he’d gone to the double bed to unfold the blanket she’d left over the arm of the couch for herself, and she thought herself bright for deciding on the too-big bed as punishment, the open space a reminder of the body that did not fill it. When the week was over, she crawled into their bed in the middle of the night, and he whispered that he was scared, “Mne bylo strashno, moli,” and she said, “I know, Bramya,” and he cried again, and he asked if they could be mishpocheh, just the two of them, and she said yes, but he never heard her say Bramya again.
* * *
Masha touched Sarah on the wrist, the end of her enameled fingertip against Sarah’s skin.
“Sarah, you are lucky, even though you fear. We are not far now. Helsinki and Piter are very near.”
She rubbed Sarah’s wrist, and then sat back in her chair, dropping her head to the side to lean against Pyotr’s shoulder. Masha smiled. She was beautiful; her teeth, big.
* * *
Sarah hid a picture of Bram’s research team in her studio, taped to the underside of her desk. The photograph was silt-stained and prematurely aged by use; her husband, still handsome, stood in the foreground, pointing back at the drill. Behind him, not conspicuous in her closeness, but nonetheless too close, there was a light, lithe woman, who would have disappeared against the background of snow were it not for her face. Big teeth, crooked, her eyes looking not at the camera, but at Bram. She was beautiful.
Sarah held the picture with both hands. Six years had passed since the affair ended, and Bram bought her a ticket to Kola. There was no reason not to go. But she held the picture still, touching the face of the other woman with a muddy finger. The woman didn’t look all that much younger than Sarah. Rocks and dirt.
Her cellphone rang, and Sarah answered. Dr. Foltz said, “B’sha’ah tovah.” May your child be born in good time. The doctor had waited six weeks. Sarah’s seventh had found its soul.
* * *
Overhead, the fasten seatbelt sign flashed and the loudspeakers chimed, a voice following, speaking too quickly for Sarah to catch the words before they passed. Masha looked at the speaker and waited patiently for the message to end before fastening herself in once more.
Sarah pointed to the ceiling and asked, “What did the announcement say?”
“We will land soon, but there will be–” There was a moment as Masha considered the right word for Sarah, but she came up with none, and put her hand out, quaking instead.
“Da, turbulence. There is turbulence before Piter.”
“The captain did not say. But everything is good. Would you understand?”
Sarah smiled, but her hands shook like Masha’s. The plane trembled in the cloud’s lightning, and Sarah let out a small sound. In her stomach, she felt a quickening she had not felt before.
* * *
The day after the call, an accident: at the Borehole, the drill head hit an unexpected pocket of gas, and the resulting explosion killed four on-shift works. Kola was shut down, and the microphone installed in the drill-bit picked up the escape-whistles of heat, rocks collapsing miles underground. Religious leaders claimed that that the recording was proof of hell, the sounds of men screaming. Bram’s satellite dish picked up fuzzy Russian cable channels; they called the workers heroes, Stakhanovites. All Sarah knew: Bram was dead. His mother laid his body to rest in the family plot in Saint Petersburg. Sarah willed her body not to lose this too.
She kept a stash of clay on her nightstand, too afraid to move more than her hands until she knew the child would stay. But in that empty apartment, her hands did move, assembling a swarm of moths for Bram’s marker, piecing together wing after wing after wing, teaching herself and her child that Bramya would not be coming home. When the first trimester ended, and she was brave enough to stand, she fired the marker: his matsava, covered in its mothy rabble.
CAITLIN Mcguire is a founding editor at Cartagena Journal. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ninth Letter, Harpur Palate, Redivider, and Hobart, and was this spring's writer-in-residence at Zvona i Nari and Balkankult. You can find her at caitlinmcguire.tumblr.com.