I am currently between names. I have given up my girl name, but I have not found the right boy name for me yet. When I was a girl, I lived on a farm outside the city. My family were Jews and so, of course, was I. Now I have no religion and I am a Communist. I sell tickets at the Kiev Theatre Box Office. They call me Petar, because that was the last ticketseller’s name. He turned into an eagle one night and flew away on the wind. No one yet has noticed that I have replaced him.
Before he turned into an eagle (at least, I think it was an eagle: perhaps a different kind of bird, it was hard to see clearly at night as he soared up into the sky) Petar wanted to become a girl. I wanted to be Petar. So one night we swapped clothes, and he gave me his job. I have no idea where he is now. Certainly not on my family’s farm.
I know that, because he told me sorrowfully that he could never take my place because he didn’t want to be cursed with being a Jew.
So he was freed to be a bird instead. This seems fitting. Better than my clothes, which didn’t really suit him. He said he hoped I didn’t mind him saying it, and he didn’t want to offend me.
I wasn’t offended at all. I promised him that. Who would want to be a Jew, when the Tzar and everyone lower than him despises us? And even worse, when we hate each other, the Litvaks and the Galicianers quarrelling and trying to take over the synagogues. And cursing each other for being too sceptical, or not being sceptical enough. And beyond and above and through that, the more I think of the rabbi’s tales and threats, the more I am convinced that Gd himself hates us. How could He not, what with the terrible punishments His Book doles out for not following the Law?
I thank you, Hashem, that I was not born a woman. That is our morning prayer and Petar was right, he could never have been one of the tribe that says that daily.
No, I was born a lighted candle, that flickers weakly in the dark. Not strong enough to send the dark away, but stubborn and hard enough to stay sputtering, refusing to let the winds of life spit on their stubby fingers, then carefully crush my wick. I will burn you, my sulky stubborn flame says, if you come near me. I might look like a puff of air could knock me out, but just try it, I will leap up and singe your pompous self-righteous eyebrows. Perhaps, even, I will burn out your eyes. And then how will you go on lecturing me about how I am born to be what I am not, and it is quite impossible for me to say, as I do, that I wish to be something else?
I watched Petar soar up into the sky like an eagle. I let him escape from the world of men, and not quite men, and men who wish they were not men but yet don’t want to be women, and women like me who know they are men and…so it goes. I can understand why Petar took the chance to fly. He had no one left in this earth to love him, you see, his family had cast him out. So had mine, of course. But I still have someone to live for. I had Yulia.
Yulia tried to make me into a girl at first. She was the younger sister but she could play the part so much better than I. She showed me how to play with dolls and she shushed me when I said I wanted to be a man one day. She gave up pretty quickly, when she saw I was serious, and after that she did her best to protect me.
When I cut my hair short with the kitchen knife for the first time, she was there. We both knew that Father’s punishment would be terrible, and that I was determined to do it anyway. So having tried and failed to convince me out of my crime, she stood guard at the kitchen entrance whilst I snipped at the horrible rats’ tails around my head.
Of course he came in anyway, pushing past her with a roar, and I could not hide in time.
He cast her to the floor as he came in, and Yulia cried. My head felt light and I stuck my nose in the air. I did not care what he did to me. The hair was cut, and he could not put it back on. I thank you, Hashem, that I was not born a woman. He saw I was defiant, and he fingered his belt. I knew what was coming. He didn’t scare me. I had borne it before many times. Pain is just pain, and when it is finished you are stronger for it. I stuck my chin out bravely like the man I knew I was.
But Father was both cleverer and crueller than I expected. “I am not going to belt you tonight, because I know you are expecting it,” he said to me, quite calmly. “You expect me to beat you as I would a son. But I will not do that, because you are my daughter and I will not treat you as roughly as you have treated your pretty hair.” Yulia and I both looked at him in astonishment. He leant across the kitchen and grabbed Yulia’s plait. My hair was muddy brown, but hers glittered yellow like the sheen of a candle. “Come here,” he said, jerking her towards him. She came, shaking with fear. Yulia was never beaten. She was the good child. “You have a choice,” he said to me. “Either I can belt her until she bleeds or you can punch her until she is merely bruised. You want to be a boy? Then show me you can fight. So you know how much harm you cause to your people with your evil ways, and also so that she learns not to try to protect you from me again.”
I looked at Yulia and she nodded. She shut her eyes, as if inviting me to set to work.
I do not like to remember the next few minutes. Pain is not just pain, when it is what you do to someone else. That was the night I lost my name, it ran away and buried itself under the floorboards somewhere with the scream I could not give at what I had to do. Yulia did not cry. I did. My hot tears like blazing fury at my father like the mad Gd in Leviticus who will kill us all for wearing the wrong kind of mixed cloth. I knew the quickest way to get it over with was to hurt her as much as Father wanted. It didn’t take long. Bruised eyes and a cracked lip. I wanted to kiss it better. I did, later. Late that night we lay, kissing lips in each others’ arms. I was her beauty and rage, and she was within me in mine.
The punishment worked for a while. I tried to live in skirts and busy myself with sewing, the way my fathers wanted. Both of them. Deuteronomy tells it how it is. Men must not dress as women. Such is an abomination to the Lrd. But I could not refrain from sin, again and again I did it so the soft hair waterfalled on my lap and in the end our father gave up forcing me to punch my sister. He had to, really. Yulia was getting to marriageable age and she would not be an attractive proposition with bruised eyes. Instead I was locked away in the cowshed with bread and water for days. Quarantined from the family as an infectious disease. Let the madness run its course. We all knew that it would do no good, I was incurable. But my father could not be seen to give in. He must uphold the Law, or the whole community would have ostracised us. I took pity on him in the end, and ran away. I think everyone was relieved, now they knew how to behave. Curtains were closed, and the community made condolence calls, just as if I had died. Or married a goy.
Petar did not have a sister who loved her. She was alone. That is why he gave me his clothes, and when I was in the privy changing, she stood naked in the dark street and gave himself to the eagles and the skies. A sharp cry of delight. The rush of eagle wings. I came out, half-decent, and he waved to me from the clouds. I saw he was too high to follow, and she was content, and we were absolved from whatever nonsense we had wanted to be or done or believed, because she was an eagle now, and at one with the nature people. Was he flying on his own yet or standing on the eagle’s back? Was she fully bird, as he waved goodbye, or only half transformed?
Now it is my turn. No eagle has offered me a ride tonight. But just like Petar, I am standing, waiting in the dark, to say goodbye. Yulia is going to America with her new husband. She is leaving as Petar did, and without her, another piece of me falls away like withered cloth. This does not leave much of me, because without a family, one is only a part person. But if that family is destroying you, one way or another, what choice to you have? I would rather live in patchwork pieces than not be allowed to live at all. People are like tinned food, Yulia would say to me when I fell into a patch of despair. They all look so similar from the outside. But labels can be deceiving. Only Hashem can truly know what is inside the tins.
I loved that idea. Since the day of the haircutting, Yulia and I had come to our shared double bed together to play as well as sleep. She softly touched the inside of my tin with her fingers, and I did the same with her. She wriggled with happiness, and I felt warm and whole and at home. Without her I had nothing. So when the arrangements were made for her marriage, I knew it was time for me to run away.
I thought if I left and went to town, I would find a place where I would feel that way again. But here I am flat like paper, or a shadow. I have no home, I belong to no one except the theatre company. The day Petar left, I missed him. Instead of accepting the place he had left me in the theatre box office I took his clothes and tried life as a delivery boy. So I stole a bicycle, and offered a baker my legs to deliver bread.
I was there for less than a week. The baker knew I had no home, and he was the sort who likes young boys. On the third day he told me to go fetch flour from the cellar, followed me down the stairs and started to pull off my clothes. Fortunately, when he saw what I was it disgusted him. He told me I was an abomination to society. (That is when I learnt that Christians feel the same way as Jews about us). He slapped me for leading him on, let me get dressed again, fired me on the spot and that was that. I am not sorry to have escaped his lust, but perhaps if I had been a boy he would have been kind to me, kept me as a sort of pet, and I should have had someone to talk to, now and again. So I came back to the theatre, and fortunately they had not yet replaced Petar, because they thought he had run away and would be back soon. I sat on his stool and waited. Petar had liked to read, so I sat with my nose in a book.
“You’re back.” The manager cuffed me from behind and told me I was a bad boy for running off but he hoped I’d had a bit of fun at least. He didn’t bother to look at my face. So I became Petar, and that was that. When the theatre closes, I walk the streets with no more human love than that given to a shadow, who follows everywhere faithfully and receives not even a glance in return. Still, I read. That is good. You can fly far on books for a while, as long as you are prepared for the loneliness and agony of returning to life.
Yulia leaves tonight with her new husband. She tells me that the journey will take weeks, and that the ship would stop in Venice. I nearly cried. Venice, my dream. Petar’s books are full of it. The city of masquerades and masks. In Italy, the land of opera, men who sing like women and wear makeup onstage without shame. In Italy everyone becomes who they want to be, and is not stuck the way they were born. It seems so unfair that Yulia, who fits her body so nicely, gets to go travel, to a place which changes everyone who passes through it. Italy. Even the word sounds sibilant, snaky. It has had so many skins. So it is it centre of the civilised world one moment, and then, a wild mass of seething tribes, each band of vandals and goths a law unto itself, like the individual scales on a snake. It grew teeth, sharp ones, a couple of dozen little city states which bit each other venomously for hundreds of years until Napoleon, the great python, swallowed them all. Then came Risorgimento. Those patriot soldiers that snaked through the peninsula and made it one again. This is how I will be too, one day. I shed my skin so hopefully, then found I was fragmented into a billion little pieces of loneliness. But a new skin will form, and I shall be whole.
She sees me through the curtains. Comes outside, and we talk. We don’t say much. Have fun in New York. Don’t forget me. I won’t. If I have a boy, I will name him after you. Then it happens. I say goodbye. She lunges towards me and I wince. But instead of a bruised face, I get kisses on my mouth.
When we were young, we kissed and touched in our shared bed, but we were children. Married now, she had experience of how our tongues should dance. “Open your mouth,” she hisses. “No, properly.” She kissed me as she knew I wanted, as a stranger and a man. We stood outside the house where her fat little husband sat chewing the unappetising gristle of religious law with the rabbi for the last time. She said she would write, from New York, and send the letters care of the theatre. She would write forever and ever, even if I did not have the money to reply. There were no more words but our tongues met. For a moment I was not a multitude, but one, and she was one with me.
I wanted to continue, but she broke away. No, that was enough. She must go. May Hashem forgive us both, for what we had just done. It was not my fault, she reassured me, stroking my cheek in a cousinly sort of way. I could be no other than who I was, but man or woman, she could not kiss anyone but her husband anymore. Did she do it to please me, or please herself? Was she pleading with me to go, or to come with her to America? I shall never know.
She is the only woman I have ever kissed, and probably the only one I ever will. I am too lonely to love again, Yulia has left, gone to America on the great ship, and there is no one else until the end of time. That night I gave up on love, and took to politics. Why politics? Because politics is better than hurting myself. Politics is about violence, and smashing up the old ways so that a new world can form. I cannot change myself the way I would like. When I was a child I cut off my hair. Now I would like to cut off my breasts. But I cannot, so I bite my nails and scratch my arms at night with a knife. The pain is terrible, but it is better than the numbness of being so alone. But I cannot keep making myself bleed. I need to find a better way to live. So I chose to be one of those Communists who wish to cut society to ribbons and make a better one. We sing of the bloodshed to come and we train with empty weapons. But it is all fantasy, of course. Just fun and games, and men to hang out with. There are so few of us and so many millions of loyal Tsarist subjects. No one would be stupid enough to begin an actual revolution. I will never need to fire a gun.
Marx did not write about men who wanted to be women, or the other, but perhaps he hadn’t met any. If he had, he would have had something sensible to say. About how we were oppressed not by our bodies but by the superstructure of industrialised society. He calls for the liberation of all. So I am a Communist. I pretend that I think this world is all there is, and that I do not have nightmares about being forced to wear dresses again in Hell. Communism isn’t much of a faith, it won’t save me from eternal punishment when it comes. But it is better than following a god who tells his people to stone me.
The night Petar flew away, he had hidden the knife in his armpit. So that even when he stripped naked and offered me his clothes, I could not see what he was going to do. When I heard the cry, I rushed to him, out of the privy, pulling up my pants. He hissed in my direction. “Leave me. Run. They will think you have murdered me if you stay, and anyway, the blood will ruin the clothes.”
They cast me out, the Jews. Yet I am still one of them. Even if I let the priests baptise me, if I run away to Turkey and become a Mohammedan. I am still one. I was born this way, like I was not born a woman. You can change your clothes. You can change your name. You can call yourself a Communist and play with an empty gun. You can pretend you are not a Jew. But you are who you are, and at the end of your life, no matter what they call you and carve on your tomb, even if the undertaker is discreet about what he found under your clothes, there is still Gd’s name for you, the one that is written in the Book Of Life. That is who you truly are, and I am Yulia’s sister and lover. We came from the same womb. I love her. Write that beside our sins. Our Jewish tongues danced and she called me Bubuleh. I am her Yiddish darling forever, until the end of the world and beyond. She fired a gun with her tongue and I am wounded in the revolution.
She is leaving me. I left Petar. The eagle soars. Written on her feathers is tomorrow’s name.