Yulia knew that Mother married Mr. Rachin for his money because she had once told six-year-old Yulia that you only attach yourself to a man if he can give you more than you already possess. Mr. Rachin was the head of the Halden Bank in Norway, and had so much money that Yulia was forced to suspect his income derived primarily from the paychecks of unfortunate clerks who always opened them just to discover a few kroner left from the pilfer of their superior. Mother had made a special effort to secure him. It was a gamble for the widowed Mrs. Abelune to spend her month’s income on a red dress and hat with enough tucks and frills to warrant her what she wasn’t; a wealthy young woman; and then wear it to the bank so that Mr. Rachin would notice there was an especially beautiful lady bothering the clerks with silly questions that day. Falling into her trap, he invited the charming, elusive, seductive woman to his desk, then to his office, then to his lunch. It took Mother so little time to ensure a marriage proposal for herself, Yulia was given no time to be concerned by the risk played with their finances and misleading dresses. She and her mother lived in a tenement house right over a butcher’s shop where they both spent the day mediating between customers and the half-deaf Butcher Boje in the slaughter house, counting themselves lucky not to be the girls who scrubbed blood from the floor and picked up entrails to bring home for their children’s supper. For years, every time a customer had showed disrespect for a poor working woman like Viktoria Abelune, Yulia had heard her mother clench her teeth and say, “Some day, I will not have to work. And then, when that day comes, I will put you out of work. I will remember you, Mr. Reiar;” unless it was Mr. Cappe, Grøndahl, Holter, or even a self-satisfied, husband-supported Mrs. Johan who visited the Abelune women at the meat counter.
But as circumstances had forced her to either work or starve with her detested child, Mrs. Abelune continued to soak her tiny hands in lemon juice overnight, keep cold clothes on her face, and beat Yulia for ever waking her up on a Sunday. Viktoria Abelune, despite being a widow with a daughter of sixteen, looked far younger than most women imprisoned behind butcher shop counters did, and her beauty stole away the breath of any newcomer only seconds before her sharp tongue contributed to the effect. She had dark chestnut hair, white skin, child’s feet, and blue eyes coyly slanted. When she had come running up the tenement stairs after lunch with Mr. Rachin and burst through the door in her radiant attire and radiant good fortune, however, even Yulia who lived with her had been stunned by the consequences of this unprecedented combination. Mother looked like a goddess, and she was about to become one. Panting, she had seized Yulia, shaken her, and cried, “Why do you stand there and stare? Don’t you know I’ve finally gained what I’ve fought for so long? If you do not run to the stationer’s this instant and buy me rose-scented paper, I will lock you in here to rot and tell Mr. Rachin that I have no perverse brat who fights her way out of fires! Quickly!”
One rose-scented note containing an elegant expression of gratitude to Mr. Rachin later, and Mrs. Abelune was invited to tea at a place called Rachin Mansion; a territorial title which struck Yulia as very original. Mother borrowed a heaping fifty kroner from three of her female neighbors that week, only inciting their interest to give a poor spendthrift money because she promised to pay them back double, and attended the event dressed in a white dress decked with false ostrich feathers that might have made a complete stranger ask her to be his wife, let alone the defenseless Mr. Rachin who knelt in front of her hand the very next morning. With the ring on her finger, Mother owned the world once again; she announced the yet obscure daughter to Mr. Rachin quite candidly and then marched down that industrial street on foot, one last time, to get Yulia. Yulia had nothing suitable to wear that would maintain such a facade as Mrs. Abelune-soon-to-be-Rachin had constructed, and so the red poplin was traded for a simple blue, Yulia was stuffed into it, and then forced to follow her mother out of the only place she had lived for sixteen years. It was a relief to leave a smelly, dingy, unheated environment for rats, but the shock of the transplatation was still acute. Yulia could no longer fathom what her next day would bring, and if she had been able to depend on Mother for some semblance of security, she might not have been so terrified to leave her place of employment.
Mr. Rachin, for all his worldly knowledge of how to make banks pour out profits, discerned no manipulation on the part of his fiancee. He was a dear old man quite taken with Mother’s sweet looks and even sweeter insincerities, but he did not devote himself to his new wife so much that he forgot to include the daughter in his benevolence; the daughter of a dead man whom Mother would have preferably left behind to rot, abandoned, in their old Kristianian shack. After the wedding, they moved to his house, and there elapsed two years of voice lessons, dancing drills, and corset constrictions. Yulia would always remember the first time Mr. Rachin had accidentally walked into a room and witnessed his adorable wife actually striking another human; striking repeatedly, and her own daughter as well. It was a complicated affair, in that men were not permitted to discuss women’s attire and yet the only way to explain Viktoria’s anger was to explain that Miss Rachin’s dress no longer fit around the waist. She had been a poor thin girl; now, after living two years in a sultan’s house full of food, she was a poor fat girl, according to Mother and forty-two centimeter limitations on corset stays.
“Yulia? Do my ears deceive me? Degraded to a corset of forty-six centimeters, like some common work woman? My daughter? Come out with me this instant!”
As though to emphasize skepticism concerning audible efficiency at that moment, she had seized Yulia by her unfortunately large ear and dragged her into a private room out of sight of the dressing maid. There, she had laid the flat of her hand so hard on Yulia’s cheek, her daughter fell backwards exactly the same way she had when five and emaciated, rather than eighteen and fat. She had begun shrieking only a few seconds before Mr. Rachin came home and discovered them.
“If I see you touch a morsel for the next three days, I will eliminate you from meals entirely and, and... I’ll sell you to the Yorvert’s kitchen as a scullery maid!” (The Yorverts were influential neighbors who had a son Mrs. Rachin always wanted Yulia to impress). “Had I known that you would lose all restraint when I saved you from starving;” here she began to hit Yulia on the head without pause, not noticing her husband come through the door; “I would have left you to starve rather than suffer such disgrace! My daughter! Unable to lace her stays! My God, you horrid, horrid wench, how do you imagine you will ever find a husband if you...”
“Viktoria!” Erich Rachin had said firmly, thinking that there must be a legitimate excuse for his wife to punish Yulia, but dismissing all hesitance once he saw the girl’s nose begin to bleed from the slaps. Yulia’s eyes were blurred with tears of pain and humiliation, and as soon as Viktoria jerked around in mid-blow to see who had witnessed her violence, she ran out of the room to prevent any more sobs. She could not boast a strong fortitude of many years’ endurance against Viktoria’s hatred, but she could prevent herself from crying out loud and enraging her mother further. Mr. Rachin watched her with compassion as she escaped through the door, then turned to Viktoria. “Why are you angry at her?” he asked, gently, confusedly.
Mrs. Rachin had two options of conduct at that moment: Allow her anger to show Erich what kind of woman he had really married, or postpone the revelation and act as a wife worthy of two-hundred-kroner pocket money every week should. In her best interests, she took a deep breath and said to that meddling idiot, “She has broken all standards of propriety and I will not let her continue without discipline. She is my daughter, I know her best; pray let me handle her, love.”
And she hurried out of the room on her angelic feet to try and find the corner Yulia would be cowering in, to reinforce all standards of propriety regarding diet once again.
From a most detestable working woman to a lady of quality. Yulia would never gain enough perspective to fathom how Viktoria had accomplished it. How she had drenched Butcher Boje’s brain cells in liquor one night to procure an apartment and a living for herself and her daughter. How she had sent Yulia outside with a sign every day and made her stand there, almost as terrified of the people on the street as she was of Viktoria, and scream in her strident little six-year-old’s voice all the meats available for sale. How she had stabbed her beautiful hands sewing a new dress for Yulia every year, and then had always shaken the girl by the shoulder in frustration when it was finished. How she had survived the disparaging looks, the mutters of disdain, and the infuriation of Butcher Boje’s sinking and sinking wages paid her for ten years in the same vile shop. How she had pinched every kroner received as though she could abuse it to reproduction, and hoarded up whatever was left after terrorizing the vegetable man and the baker until they quaked to see her enter the market stalls. How she had taken Yulia to the park every Saturday and then left her there, tramping through the upper class street in her old shoes with her head held as high as though she could afford French heels, noting to herself every man she saw. How she had finally targeted Mr. Rachin, stalked him, studied him, then gone and bought a gorgeous dress to seduce him to his knees, all without ever revealing her history. How her beauty had been preserved even with matrimony at sixteen, pregnancy at seventeen, and then desertion at eighteen, to the result that she remained a slender porcelain goddess with flowing curls and the blue eyes of a doll, her hands underneath her kid gloves never marred with coarse needles or raw meat anymore, and her corsets always forty-two centimeters, when they were not forty-one.
Despite being unable to understand how her mother had evolved from utter impoverishment to the gain of such a perfect, greedy grasp on every thing desirable in a woman’s life, Yulia knew the story of Viktoria’s low origins well enough; her mother had only spewed forth the bitter details each time she caught Yulia eating mincemeat off the floor or playing in the alleys with raggamuffin progeny. The story would always begin with Viktoria dragging her by her ear, stretching out the lobes alternately with such administrations, into the apartment and threw her onto her cot where she would be out of the way of Viktoria’s storming until her mother felt obliged to kick her. Whenever the contact of Viktoria’s shoes with Yulia’s thin thighs was accidental, naturally this meant “the worst brat in Kristiania” was underfoot again and must be enthusiastically kicked out of traffic, so Yulia always stayed on her cot.
“I never, I never!” Viktoria usually started as Yulia shivered and leaked silent, unwilling tears in her horror of the next blow to be dealt; “Ever should have taken you back when that stupid boy came crawling out of the cellar and rolled you out of the smoke like a moldy potato! To think, his idiocy! To save you! Anyone in the world would have the sense to know I had left you there on purpose, but he risked life and limb to bring my burden back to me! My back aches with carrying you, you worthless burden, don’t you know?!” At this particular interval, Mother recovered from the rapture of her own soliloquy and became practical, storming over to kick Yulia so that she was shoved into the old urine stains on the wall. “Do you know why you are worthless? Do you know why you are a swine? Do you?!”
Once, Yulia had been required to answer these questions, but after realizing that she made Mother even angrier when she spoke than when she ignored the demand for intelligent reaction, she acted like an animal instead and cowered against the cement wall. Viktoria often kicked her again for good measure at this crucial point, then went back to stalking the perimeter of their quarters.
“Of course you don’t! You are as stupid as that pig who saved your useless hide! You never met that villain who was your father and you look just like him! What his name, you little beast? Tell me his name right now!”
Yulia wouldn’t say Axel and throw Viktoria into an absolute fit, so she waited for her mother to kick her again and then announce, “It was Axel! He is dead, and I wish you were too! I wake up one morning and he was gone; I wish I had woken up after setting the house on fire and found nothing but your ashes, ashes! I will never see him again, and someday, I will never have to see you again! Get up off that bed right now! Don’t you see there is another rat hole in the wall? Block it immediately so that I won’t be swarmed with any more nasty little beasts like you than absolutely necessary!”
The story of Mother’s life never took more than five minutes to tell, to give or take an additional minute of pounding on Yulia’s head before she went back downstairs to the counter. It was always when Yulia got caught feeding grass to the cows that lived in the shed behind Boge’s house before they were slaughtered, hid intestinal tubes under her pillow to play with as rings, or accidentally brought mildew paper for wrapping the meats, that Mother became a true harridan and bruised Yulia so that the girl limped. It was on such occasions of intolerable misbehavior that everything detestable about her daughter came pouring out: Axel, how they had married, how he had disappeared a few days after Yulia was born, how Viktoria had set the house on fire with her infant inside so that the neighbors would think Axel burned in there as well, and how Wilfrid had heard the baby screaming and jumped heedlessly into the cellar to crawl in and then crawl out with her black swaddled form in his arms. Yulia had had many pains; pains of an empty stomach, pains of empty energy, and pains of empty warmth; but it was the pains of the heart that could succeed most acutely in making her cry, and by the time she was six, she had learned not to cry when her mother yelled at her, only when the beatings were too much to bear. It was the pain of Wilfrid in her heart that had the power to make her cry. If she had ever wanted to help Mattia with washing out the butchering room, all she would have had to do was stand at one end, think of the day she had left Wilfrid, and begin bawling. For Yulia, having a friend was much harder than not having any friends, because the pain of removal was much harder to bear than the pain of absence.
So, two years after Mother married Mr. Rachin and Yulia gained a waist of forty-six centimeters, she still did not dare have a friend to replace the brave little boy who had rescued her from the fire and had been the only human to say, “I love you, Yulia,” her entire life. She simply would not dare.