Perla: A Short Story

Her overjoyed parents named her Perla, and there never had been a better match between the name and its bearer, for her skin had the creamy color and the rosy undertone one customary sees in a mother-of-pearl.   She was the source of almost hysterical joy for her mother, tiny Rochl of the troubled eyes; and unabashed adoration for her father, the imposing Meyer, whose corpulent figure could be found making a nuisance of himself in the nursery at least ten times a day.  Perla was the only living child of Meyer and Rochl Litvak, and her five early departed and fiercely mourned siblings were probably annoying the Almighty every blessed day with their incessant pleas for her health and happiness.  Meyer owned the biggest clothing store in Odessa on the prestigious Deribasovskaya Street, and as such was in the perfect position to shower his precious daughter with the most luxurious layette that could be purchased for money in the year of our Lord 1897.  The elderly grandparents, numerous aunts, uncles and cousins, in short, the crème de la crème of Odessa, were bringing their good wishes along with the mounds of toys and tchotchkes to the sprawling Litvak house in a steady stream for days; and every little trinket was properly cataloged and stored in a safe place, waiting for the time when the baby would surely have the need for it.  It was a huge blow, therefore, when a few months after the happy occasion the family realized that Perla couldn’t hear anything but the most obnoxious noises.

At first poor Rochl was so devastated, that she even voiced an opinion that cast a huge doubt on Adonai’s involvement in the lives of his chosen people, because if He did care about them, He surely couldn’t have punished her so cruelly for the sins she’d never committed.  She was promptly severely reprimanded by Meyer’s minatory stare and a choir of scandalized relatives.  Who was she, after all, to question His will?  Our Lord, obviously, was trying to test the family’s resolve and devotion to Him in these trying times, and so they, the family, had no other choice but to accept the gift and the accompanying challenge with gratitude and submission.  After all, Perla was a woman, and a silent wife might mean a happier husband in a long run.  Assuming there would be a husband, of course.

This pious resolve was tested one more time a year later when Katz’s crazed horse ran amok and reared mightily with a horrifying scream right in front of Litvak’s first floor balcony, where Perla was innocently sitting in her baby crib.  She didn’t make a sound, but kept staring fixedly into space with her bottomless black eyes for hours after the incident, rigid, immobile and utterly unresponsive to the anxious prodding and probing of her mother.  The doctor, who was invited to see the baby, determined that she was in shock and would get better by and by.  In the next few days, however, Perla had her first epileptic seizure, and the fragile hope that she might one day have a semblance of normal life was shuttered once and for all.

Utterly destroyed by this new development, Rochl and Meyer went through the normal circles of hell reserved specifically for the parents of sick kids.  First they consulted the doctors who the extended family and multitude of friends were swearing by, then the most celebrated and highly paid ones, then they moved to the quacks and charlatans, and finally gave up on physicians and magicians alike.  With mute horror and quiet desperation, they accepted the fact that while Perla was a beauty, the likes of which Odessa had not seen since it was founded by an itinerant Spanish warrior turned Russian Admiral a century ago, she was deaf, mute and prone to seizures that plagued her at the most inopportune moments.  In the face of this calamity, tiny Rochl became almost invisible, and Meyer’s good humor retreated into the darkest corner of his soul, to be called upon only on special occasions, like Simchat Torah, Chanukah or Purim, when the public display of happiness (or what passed for it in this instance) was absolutely necessary.  Silence reigned in the once loud Litvak’s house.  Even the naughtiest of nephews were quiet as lambs at the family dinners.

When Perla turned four years old, though, something changed in Meyer’s demeanor.  His generous nature couldn’t cope with his unhappiness in silence any longer.  He opened his house to the impoverished branch of his family and once more it was awash with children’s laughter and adults’ screams.  Even the perpetually sad Rochl came to appreciate the benefits of this arrangement in time.  Seeing Perla playing with her little cousins, one could almost forget her unfortunate condition, because it was obvious that her mind was lively, her attitude cheerful and her behavior always gracious and polite, as befitted a Jewish girl from a good family.  She communicated by means of elegant gestures and timid little sounds, that were almost adorable, and the other children reciprocated in similar fashion.  From afar the whole lot of them looked like a flock of birds, ready to fly away any minute, chirping and warbling contentedly.

As the time passed, Perla grew even more beautiful.  No longer a cute little child, she was a teenager of unsurpassed grace and poise, and countless matchmakers were spending sleepless nights tossing and turning in their beds trying to figure out a way to find her a husband.  Alas, the moment prospective parents of the groom heard about her shortcomings, they were politely refusing all further discussions of the match. By the time Perla was 17 years old, Rochl and Meyer had all but gave up on the idea altogether.  The thought that the worst thing that can happen to a Jewish girl had happened to their dear child crushed them, but they both had learned to live with disappointment.  Rochl was deeply involved in all negotiations around impending nuptials of all family members of marriageable age.  Everybody was supplied with a suitable dowry and the proper lineage of prospective husbands/wives was scrutinized in minute detail by her.  Perla was constantly by her side: always a bridesmaid, never a bride.  And Meyer lost himself in his work.

One day he found himself on his knees before the illustrious person of Madame Farber, noting the length of the hemline she was not entirely happy about.  The widow of a prosperous Kosher butcher, Madame Farber was getting ready for her next marriage, and needed a whole new set of clothes to impress her future husband.  Tall and stout, and a possessor of a fiery temper, she wasn’t an easy customer, and Meyer caught himself swearing silently, as he was attending to her sometimes outrageous demands.

“Just look at this dress!” boomed Madame Farber in a voice powerful, but a little stifled, owing to the tightness of the collar and a snug fit around the mighty waistline.  “It’s way too short; look, I can see the tops of my shoes, and I can’t breathe properly in this bodice!  Who was this thing made for, a stick with short legs?”  Swallowing a comment that would surely have sent the worthy widow storming out of the store, Meyer was trying to come up with a suitable answer when he heard a polite chuckle in the corner.

“If you pardon my interference, Madam and Monsieur,” a young man approached the piece de resistance with a polite bow.  “I happen to completely agree with Madam Farber; this dress was made for a woman of less generous proportions, but, oh, what a beautiful piece of work it is!  Just look at the lines of the sleeves, this perfect combination of ruffles and laces, these exquisite buttons and gorgeous silk inlays!  I must pay you a compliment, Madam, for only a woman of impeccable taste could’ve picked this masterpiece of a dress!  All it needs is a few small alterations and I would be more than happy attend to it, given a chance.”

This tirade was met with astonished silence from both Meyer and his customer.  Eventually, a small wheeze came from the blue ruffled tower that contained Madame Farber.

“If you want something from me, young man,” she announced, “you might consider not wasting your time here.  I don’t pay for compliments.”

“Oh, no, Madame,” smiled the unknown visitor.  “I was just reflecting on the fact that it would’ve been such a privilege to work on this dress and to make its beauty a perfect counterpoint to yours.”

“Who are you, and what are you doing in my store?” demanded Meyer, finally finding his voice in the face of this unprecedented assault on his home turf.

“My name is Benny Rozenthal and I am a dressmaker,” bowed the young man, “I don’t mean any disrespect, Reb Meyer.  I just arrived from Olevsk with my mother and, having heard from other people about your fine establishment, came to offer my services to you.”

“And why do you think that I need your services, Benny from Olevsk?” asked Meyer, laboriously getting up from the floor, where he was stuck during his whole conversation.

“Well, one doesn’t always know what he needs, until he gets it, my mother always says,” sagely answered Benny.  “I could be of a great help to you, Reb Meyer.  I know everything there is to know about making clothes.  My father, God rests his soul, was a dressmaker, as was his father before him.  I was brought up in our small shop among the dress pieces and learned to sew at the same time I learned to talk, I think.”

“Now, that’s something I believe,” muttered Meyer.  “If you sew the same way you talk, I wouldn’t be surprised if your clothes came out dripping with honey, just like your words.”

“You know what, young Benny,” Madame Farber suddenly chimed it, “I might allow you to work on my dress, and if I like it, I’ll put in a good word for you with Reb Meyer.”

“And who will pay for it if you don’t like it?” inquired Meyer, feeling his blood pressure rising.

“I will!” Benny almost screamed.  “I will reimburse you the cost of the dress and the materials, but I swear, Reb Meyer, if you give me this chance I won’t disappoint you!”

Needless to say, the dress was a smash hit with Madame Farber.  She requested that Benny would alter all of her clothes from that point on, and he happily agreed to it.  In time, his bubbling personality and genuine passion for clothes gained him Meyer’s approval as well.  And so it happened, that one stormy October evening about six months after the fateful encounter in Meyer’s shop, Benny was invited to the Litvaks’ house for dinner.

He arrived on time, dressed in his best clothes and clearly scared out of his wits.  His desire to make a good impression and not screw up was so obvious, that Rochl caught herself wanting to smooth his hair in a motherly way and tell him that everything will be all right.  He resolutely looked at his shoes, which were shined to perfection for the occasion, and grew red as a beat when somebody asked him a question.  When all the family members filed in and took their places at the dinner table, Benny finally lifted his eyes and beheld Perla for the first time.

If Benny was shy and tongue tied before that, Perla’s appearance effectively put the kibosh even on the little sounds that were coming from his direction.  Meyer didn’t know what to make of it, because he spent countless hours telling stories about Benny’s gift of gab.  Not willing to embarrass his guest, though, Meyer gently stirred conversation toward the subjects that required only minimal participation from him, with Rochl supplying most of the table talk.  When Benny left, stammering words of appreciation and eternal gratitude for the honor undeservedly granted to him, and leaving a pleasant smell of cologne in his wake, the family verdict was that the boy was pleasant, but unremarkable.  Meyer was a little perplexed and in the morning resolved to ask Benny about the mystery of his behavior at dinner.

“Say, Benny, what happened to you yesterday?” demanded Meyer, the moment he laid his eyes on Benny.  “I spent the past few months peddling your talent to my family, and you chose the first time you meet them to go all silent on me!  What was that all about?”

“Oh, Reb Meyer, I must be honest with you,” answered Benny.  “At first I was just too intimidated by your wonderful family, but when I saw your daughter, I suddenly understood that my whole life was about meeting her.  She’s the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen in my entire life, and I am just so happy, I could cry!  Reb Meyer, I know I can’t offer much to a wife yet, but you know that I am a good dressmaker, possibly even a great one, I will work even harder for her.  I have ideas on how to grow the business, I will do whatever you want… Can I send a matchmaker to you?”

Meyer was shocked into silence.  “You know, Benny,” he allowed finally, “I knew you’re a little not right in your head the first time I met you, but now I am sure of it.  Are you saying you want to marry Perla, my daughter?”

Benny paled like a ghost and a fine sheen of sweat accumulated on his brow, but he drew himself up with all the willpower he possessed at that moment and said, “I do, don’t I?”

Meyer, as opposed to Benny, was turning puce.  “You know that Perla is deaf and mute, right?  Because if you are joking about my daughter’s future, I am going to rip your vest off and stick it into your mouth right now, you little schmuck!”

Benny looked properly horrorstruck at the suggestion and at the revelation alike.

“Well, I didn’t know that, still being a newcomer in Odessa,” he retorted after a considerable silence, “but it seems to me that I can talk for the both of us.  So what if she can’t speak or hear?  Her eyes tell me she has a brain behind them, and that’s good enough for me. Maybe that’s why God gave me the gift of speech, because He, in His great wisdom knew, that my perfect match won’t have it at all!  What do you say to that, Reb Meyer?”

“Oh, Benny,” tears were welling in Meyer’s eyes and spilling on his mustache.  “That’s not all.  I love Perla more than life and she is my only child, but honesty compels me to tell you that she also has seizures from time to time, and that no matchmaker would even come close to our house anymore.  Can we just go back to work and forget this conversation before I embarrass myself any further by crying like a baby?”

At this Benny sat on the chair heavily, and lowered his head.  Minutes went by, and he still wasn’t moving.  Meyer wiped his eyes, turned away from him and went to the counter to open the cash register before the first customer’s arrival.  Suddenly he heard Benny’s voice, quivering with emotions. “Well, Reb Meyer, here’s what I have to say about this: Maybe our Lord wants to try me more than everybody else.  She is not perfect, but neither am I.  I don’t have a lot of money, and I am not a very learned man.  Maybe I’m not an ideal son-in-law, as she’s not the ideal bride my mother probably had in mind for me, but I tell you one thing, Reb Meyer, I will love her and respect her for as long as I shall live, and that should count for something.  Now, since the matchmakers won’t come to your house, as you’ve said, can I send my mother to you to discuss the match?”

Soon the whole Odessa was talking about the newcomer Benny Rozenthal marrying the deaf and mute daughter of Meyer Litvak.  People were offering different opinions on the subject, with the most prominent one being that money controls everything, and for a chance to become Meyer’s business partner, the young Benny sold himself into a loveless and problematic marriage.  Some kind souls whispered these suggestions to Benny’s mother, whose sharp tongue told them off in no time; someone congratulated Benny on a spectacular climb in rank at the expense of the health of his future progeny, at which point Benny lost his cool and went at that kind soul with his fists.  But most people were just curious about the details of the agreement and the size of the dowry.  Meyer and Rochl were ecstatic, Benny was almost incoherent with happiness, and Perla – well, nobody could really tell.  She was a dutiful daughter and would doubtless become a dutiful wife.  That much was expected of her, the rest was a mystery.

The wedding took place during Chanukah in order to capitalize on the month of Kislev’s auspiciousness.  The bride was radiant, the groom was handsome, and everybody agreed later that the whole affair was beyond reproach.  The young couple settled in a separate wing of the Litvaks’ house and started their journey together.  It was apparent to everyone that Benny adored his young wife.  He started to recognize her sounds and gestures, and very soon was able to communicate with her on some level.  When he couldn’t get his point across, he would enlist the help of the youngest cousin Beila, who was still living at the house.  In a few months after the wedding Rochl realized that Perla was pregnant, and the family became delirious with joy and apprehension.  If abundance of prayers could guarantee robust health, Benny’s and Perla’s child would’ve lived to 120 without a single sneeze.  Rochl, of course, was worrying herself sick thinking all kinds of crazy thoughts.

“Meyer, Meyer, wake up,” she would whisper tragically into his ear in the middle of the night.  “I just can’t fall asleep; I keep thinking what would happen when Perla’s child would get hungry when everybody is sleeping already and start crying, and she won’t hear the baby, and Benny would have to get up and get her…  This is unseemly, isn’t it?  And the baby would wake up the whole house, and we can’t just barge into their rooms and tell her to get up, and Benny would get angry, and Perla wouldn’t understand why; oh, why, oh, what have I done in my life to deserve all this?”

Meyer would try to comfort her as best as he could, but he was secretly wondering about the same things.  If human pregnancy was any longer, the whole family would’ve ended up in a mental institution en masse from sheer amount of stress.  Against all odds, though, Perla carried the child without too many problems.  Her delicate condition made her even more beautiful and mysterious, and the seizures had not occurred at all.  She looked content and happy, and was obviously thrilled by her new life.

In due time, a perfect baby girl announced her arrival into this world by a squeaky wail, and the whole family immediately switched from worries about the pregnancy to worries about the newborn’s health and progress.  The young parents were overcome with joy at their daughter’s birth.  Perla communicated her desire to name the baby Rose by gesturing toward the enormous bouquet of eponymous flowers Benny had brought her, and he promptly agreed (although at that point he would’ve agreed to anything and everything she wanted).  Rochl’s worries turned out to be a complete non-issue, because Perla seemed to possess an uncanny ability to sense everything that was related to her precious child, and would jump off her bed the moment Rose would emit even a tiny cry.  Lacking the ability to pronounce her daughter’s name, Perla called her Sisha, and the sibilant sounds of this tender sobriquet were so weirdly comforting and sweet, that soon the official name was used on special occasions only.  The elephant in the room, of course, was Sisha’s ability to hear, and the whole family applied itself fervently to the task of determining it by clapping their hands above the baby’s pink ears unexpectedly, banging the doors when she was asleep, squeezing the shrill sounding toys when she was peacefully sitting in her mother’s lap, and doing so many similarly ridiculous things in hopes to elicit the long-awaited response, that Benny had to put a polite but firm stop to it after a while.  In a few months, it became apparent that Sisha’s perfect shell-like appendages could, indeed make out all the sounds, and at that point the exhausted relatives of various degrees of kinship at last ceased their enthusiastic assaults.

Happiness eventually found its slow way into the huge Litvak-Rozenthal household, and Rochl was finally able to say the prayers to our Lord without brushing off the tears.  But what do we humans know about the designs of our Lord?  Nothing.  Why do some people live all their unremarkable lives in a relative peace, and yet others are constantly tested, like somebody is trying to make sure that they do have the ability to survive through the darkest times?  No answer…

When Sisha was two years old, troubled times began to affect the cosmopolitan Odessa.  The year was 1917, and Russia was trembling under the stress of revolution, that uprooted families, made brother fight brother and turned the whole world upside down.  People were huddling together in their kitchens and whispering horror stories about pogroms and armies of rabble that were advancing on the city from different sides.  Criminal elements were controlling everything, and having a business was rapidly becoming a liability rather than an asset.  It became dangerous to be outside after dark, especially for people of means, so men hurried home the moment their work was done.

One balmy summer afternoon Benny realized that there was no way he would be able to make it to his house on time.  As he promised Meyer, he was able to grow the business exponentially since his marriage to Perla, but times being what they were, he reckoned that maybe immigration would be the best way to protect his family from the uncertainties and brutalities of the Russian Revolution.  It was this important matter, therefore, that he wanted to discuss with his French business partner, who promised to stop by the store.  Once the Frenchman came in, they fell into such a spirited discussion of difficult times, that a bottle of wine was produced and promptly consumed.  Puzzled by this circumstance the partners called for another bottle and some food, and then decided to relocate into one of the last reputable kosher restaurants to finish off the conversation.  Benny wasn’t drunk yet, just a little tipsy, and still in possession of his mental faculties.  Thinking about schlepping home in the dark coastal night wearing at three-piece suit with a handsome gold watch in the pocket made his stomach contract with fear.  He really didn’t relish the thought of being robbed, beaten, or, most likely, killed for it.  Suddenly his gaze fell on one of Perla’s numerous young cousins, Schmuel, who was passing by.

“Hey, Schmuel, bubele, come here, please,” beckoned Benny the gawky teenager.  “Can you take my watch to Perla and let her know that I’ll be home late?  I really don’t want to walk around with it in my pocket.”

“Sure, Uncle Benny, I’ll do it,” said Schmuel.  “But I am not going home right away.  I’ll be there in an hour or so, all right?”

“Well, now you have a watch to track the time, so I am sure you’ll make it there before long,” quipped Benny.  “Monsieur Fisher and I have a long night ahead of us.”  With that, he returned to the restaurant to continue with his business.

Young Schmuel didn’t go home in an hour.  He met with his friends and they started a game of soccer, during which he forgot all about Benny, his watch and whatever it was that he promised to do.  And so it happened, that Benny, unsteady on his feet and very much in his cups, arrived to the Litvaks’ house first.  Now, Perla, obviously, couldn’t nag him for being drunk, but she made her displeasure known.  Her facial expression, along with gestures and those queer sounds she made in lieu of conversation were well understood by Benny, but at that moment he felt like he was reproached unfairly.  Wasn’t he preparing everything for the family’s move to Paris?  Didn’t he deserve some reprieve from work and home life?  He thought he did, which he let Perla know by stating it firmly, wildly waving his arms in the process.  By the way, where might his watch be, he inquired by drawing a picture of what he thought was his watch in the air.  Perla, in her righteous indignation at this idiotic question just shrugged and turned to leave.  Benny, his reflexes affected by excessive libations, tried to take her hand, but missed and inadvertently hit her on the shoulder.  When she turned to him, not understanding, he made a move to hug her, but overshot and almost fell on her, pushing her against the door.  Taken completely by surprise, Perla lost her balance and fell with a small cry.  Benny wanted to help her up, but she pushed him away and ran out of the room.  He followed her, trying to apologize incoherently, but she moved with the speed of light.  Within moments she was opening the wardrobes, taking his clothes out and throwing them on the floor.

“Perla, what are you doing?” yelled Benny, finally mastering control over his tongue.  “Would you please stop that?”  But she wouldn’t stop.  Baby Sisha woke up and started to cry in her crib.  When Benny tried to take her out, Perla pushed him away from the crib and stood in front of him, white with fury, hands akimbo, blocking the baby with her body.  She made the sign of a cross with her fingers, then bumped her fists together, then made a strange curling motion with her fingers by her temples, and finally shook her head.  Benny was at a loss for words.  At this point, various family members started to show up, summoned by the commotion.  Rochl almost passed out, recognizing the sign of a domestic conflict.  In the midst of shouting, baby’s cries and Benny’s imploring pleas, Perla was as still as a mountain, not moving an inch, obsessively repeating her confusing pantomime.

“What is she saying, for God’s sake?  What is she saying?” despondently wailed Benny.  Alcohol was rapidly disappearing from his body, leaving him weak and covered in perspiration.

“Uncle Benny,” whispered Cousin Beila.  “I think I know what it is, but you’re not going to like it.”

“Beila, honey, please just tell me, and never mind what I like,” pleaded Benny.

“All right, Uncle Benny.  She says, only Russians hit each other, Jews never do.  See, cross means Christians or Russians, I guess; fist bumps are for hitting, then she kind of makes the curling motion for the side locks and shakes her head, like, no?  I am scared, Uncle Benny, I never saw her in this state.” Beila said, sniffing.

Everybody got really quiet.  In this total silence Perla pointed to Benny, then to the door, and kicked whatever article of his clothing was closest to her.  Benny froze.  He fell to his knees and apologized profusely.  He tried to hug her legs, but she wouldn’t allow it.  Rochl finally fainted, and this upped the general mayhem by a couple of points.  Meyer ordered everyone out of the room, so Benny and Perla might try to resolve this nightmare on their own.  The family discreetly listened behind the closed doors to the one-way conversation, which culminated in Benny’s agonizing sobs.

Suddenly someone rang the doorbell, and people ran to the door, as if they were expecting a miracle worker to come in and solve all their problems.  When the door opened, it revealed the young Cousin Schmuel, who came in dirty, tired and perfectly happy, having just won a game.

“Hey, everybody,” he trilled, ignoring the long faces.  “Sorry, I’m late.  Uncle Benny will be late as well; I saw him at the restaurant with some French guy.  Here is his gold watch; I am supposed to give it to Perla.”

Let me now draw a curtain over this pathetic scene.  Perla never took Benny back, no matter how much he begged, explained himself, and swore of undying love.  Rochl and Meyer both interceded on his behalf, but were firmly rebuffed, much to their bitter disappointment.  Cousin Schmuel was utterly destroyed, justly blaming himself for the whole mess.  The family did not immigrate to Paris and was taken apart by the events of the Russian Revolution, civil war and subsequent repressions.  Benny died in Gulag, alone and miserable, accused of being a Polish spy.  Rochl and Meyer soon followed him to the early graves; their family ruined, their possessions expropriated and their way of life obsolete in the new world. Perla lived with her daughter until the end of her days, mute and withdrawn, moving furniture from room to room in fits of impotent anger.  Baby Sisha grew up to be a strong-willed young woman, fiercely protective of her mother.  She had accepted her life as a daughter of the enemy of the people and a mute harridan, and made the best of it, graduating from the Odessa University with a degree in chemistry.  She perished during World War II when the hospital where she was working as a nurse was bombed by the Luftwaffe planes.

As my grandmother, Beila, was telling me this story, she would always emphasize the fact that nobody ever understood Perla’s visceral reaction to the only mistake Benny had made in his entire life.  For years, whenever somebody brought it up, she would just repeat her pantomime about Christians and Jews, then turn away and refuse all further communication attempts.  She left this world, taking the answer with her, mysterious, defiant and beautiful, as God intended her to be.

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