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Kate Timmers

excerpt from "The Wet Nurse Late of the House of Karenin"

1. Available immediately

Lyuba waits under the awning of the feed store on Little Stable Street, one in a row of half a dozen women. Though they stand ankle-deep in snow, they are warm under woollen shawls dyed in shades of home-boiled brown: onionskin, lichen, mushroom. The dray horses, too, lend a little warmth, their steaming flanks within reach at the hitching-post. Feed bags hang heavy around their necks, and the women coo to the beasts as they relieve them of handfuls of raw oats. They are afraid to leave to buy a bowl of broth from the soup-man around the corner lest paying customers materialize in their absence.

Lyuba has no money to spare for soup. She is saving her final kopeks in the sole of her stocking. She grew up on a country estate and doesn’t mind snow, or waiting, or the mealy, mouldering flavour of the oats. Sliding her hand under the shawl and inside the bodice of her dress — a cast-off from her employer two jobs ago — she guesses that she has at most a week before she will have to move from her place below the awning to a queue of less respectable women in the shadow of the Alexandrinsky Theatre, or more probably in front of one of the late-night teahouses on an adjacent street. A line of work she would not otherwise choose, were the circumstances of her dismissal different, but she is practical, and youth and health and a passable beauty are on her side. She pinches her cheeks to keep them ruddy and assumes an expression of beatific patience inspired by an icon of the Virgin.

From around the corner a babushka approaches bearing an infant of roughly ten months of age. A collective sigh billows whitely from the group. The endmost woman, her cheeks round and red as apples, receives the child and unbuttons herself to feed it. Lyuba utters a prayer for strength; two others cross themselves. The nursing woman smiles at the baby while it sucks, then passes it back to the babushka, who remains silent, gumming tobacco. The baby spasms joyously in her arms like an acrobat in mid-leap, babbling and gnawing its fists as it is carried away.

“It’s not hers,” the woman to Lyuba’s left whispers. “It’s her neighbour’s. Shameful, trotting it out in front of us.”

“You want her to dry up?” Lyuba asks, disgusted. Only once before has she been obliged to hire herself out without a reference. The process is proving no less disagreeable on this occasion. “You want a baby to go hungry? Shame on you.”

The woman spits with contempt. The wind picks up and drives the snow harder, blending it with the sleigh-sliced mess of the street to form a grimy hash. The afternoon light leaches from the sky, and the lamplighters begin their shuffle from post to post. Last night Lyuba paid the owner of the feed store to sleep in his hayloft, and woke with his hand working its way up her dress. A well-aimed kick discouraged him. She chews some oats, considering her options as evening descends.

A woman with a bedraggled fur hat coagulates out of the gloom and approaches the queue with determination. Lyuba stiffens. The griper beside her convinced two of the others to join her for a meal of soup; they have been gone a quarter of an hour. The woman who nursed her neighbour’s baby is sleeping upright on a stack of soggy newsprint. Only Lyuba and one other nurse, a squat Muscovite whose bosom almost meets her chin, are contenders.

“My master requires a woman immediately,” the woman in the hat addresses them. She speaks with the condescending tenderness of a career nanny. “The baby is a girl, four days old. It is a matter of some urgency and discretion. Room and board, and a small stipend.” She turns to Lyuba, who is aware that alongside the dark dwarflike nurse already struggling with her buttons she must appear a flaxen-haired harvest queen. “Do you have enough for a newborn?”

Lyuba laughs and reaches for her own buttons. In the twenty-six hours since her dismissal, she has milked herself seven times. From the taut globe of her right breast she tweaks a watery jet that sprays the snow a yard away. Her left nipple dampens her bodice in sympathy.

“Very good,” says the nanny. “Follow me, please.”

Around the corner Lyuba passes the others at the soup-man’s stall. Their mouths hang open as she climbs into a sleigh behind her new employer’s woman and wraps herself in a rug. Thanks be to God, she prays as the sleigh whisks them through the Petersburg night, the harness bells jingling like a censer.

2. Prior experience

Lyuba did not mean to leave her previous job so abruptly, but whoever intends for such a thing to happen? The young mother was heiress to a piano-factory fortune; her husband was employed by his father-in-law to oversee the delivery of the instruments. Their happy son became Lyuba’s charge at four months of age when the mother, weakened by consumption, was sent by her father to a sanitorium in the south of Germany. Coming from a position as nurse to a two-year-old textile heir, she was unsure that she would be able to produce adequate milk for a younger baby, but the piano patriarch went to great lengths during the Lenten fast to supply her with rich meats, smoked fish, and fresh goat’s milk, and his grandson flourished.

. . .


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